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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Household Pollutants

Air Date: Week of

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Common household products like hairspray, floor polish and car wax are now the second largest contributor to smog in southern California, second only to tailpipe exhaust. Host Steve Curwood talks about the development with Gary Polakovic, air pollution reporter for the Los Angeles Times.


CURWOOD: Welcome back to Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood.

Coming up, the pressure rises on the waters of the Chattahoochee River. But first, ordinary household products, such as cleansers, makeup, and paint, are now the Los Angeles region's second leading source of air pollution, after car and truck exhaust. That was the lead in a recent Los Angeles Times page one story. I'll repeat it, though, because it's a little hard to believe.

Products that you find in any household garage or bathroom are now the second leading source of air pollution in a region famous for its air problems.

The author of that article was Gary Polakovic of the LA Times, who joins me now. Welcome, Gary.


CURWOOD: Now, tell me, what are these products that are adding up to, you report, 108 tons of hydrocarbons a day in the air of the LA basin?

POLAKOVIC: I know, can you believe that? That's such a big number. It's kind of a who'd-a-thunk-it kind of a figure. When you look around the LA basin, we have all these high-profile sources of pollution, like the trucks and the ports and power plants and all this kind of thing, and then along comes these consumer products as a major source, and it really kind of snuck up on us.

What we're talking about here are products that everybody uses. These are items that are right under our nose, within our home, in our kitchen cupboards, our garages, our cleaning cabinets. And we're talking things like glue, and room freshener, antiperspirant, rubbing alcohol, perfume, floor wax, and on and on and on. Just whatever you find in the kitchen cabinet, that's the kind of stuff we're talking about here.

CURWOOD: Hairspray has to be on this list.

POLAKOVIC: Hairspray is definitely on that list. It's a big one.

CURWOOD: So Gary, if I understand this right, these products themselves aren't polluting, it's that they combine to form smog, ozone?

POLAKOVIC: Yep, you're exactly right, Steve. Every time you use one of these products, you get a little tiny puff or release of vapor, really. You can see this as you're cleaning. You can watch the stuff evaporate into the air. And once it evaporates into the air, not only does it pollute the interior of your home, the so-called indoor air pollution problem, but it escapes into the atmosphere. And once it's airborne, it starts mixing with chemicals from power plants and tailpipes and all the other stuff to create ozone, which is the most attractable pollutant in the Los Angeles region and a major lung irritant.

CURWOOD: Now tell me, Gary, is it because there are just so many more people using so many more products, millions of people using nail polish remover and rubbing alcohol? Or is it that we've cut the other pollutions so successfully that these cleaners and gels are what we have left getting into the air?

POLAKOVIC: It's both, Steve. What you see is, across California, you see emissions from almost every other source coming down very dramatically, and that would be tailpipes and power plants and factories and the like. And when we're getting to the point where the smog war in Los Angles is coming down to eking out the last few grams of solvent from shoe polish or Formula 409, you're really starting to scrape the bottom of the barrel for emissions reductions.

In the future, because of population growth, they figure that the emissions from this source should grow about 15 percent. By 2020, what that means is that consumer products are going to be producing more hydrocarbons than all the cars and all the trucks in the Los Angeles region.

CURWOOD: Wow. Now, I understand that California may soon become, or perhaps already is, the first state to levy pollution fees on manufacturers who make these products, such as the car waxes and rubbing alcohol and hairspray. Will we be seeing companies changing their product lines, reformulating, not just for California, but for the whole country?

POLAKOVIC: There are definitely more controls coming in California. That has big implications for the country and for industry. For starters, whatever regulations California pursues, particularly in the consumer products category, are copied in other states and by the U.S. EPA. So what we do here basically becomes the national standard.

Usually, though, industry doesn't wait for that. They sell so much product in California that once California sets new standards, for the most part, they reformulate their products for all of North America, so they are watching this very, very closely, too.

CURWOOD: California regulators have been regulating the air for a long, long time. They're really veterans at this. But you've got to admit this is kind of a curve ball. How are they handling this category of pollutants?

POLAKOVIC: California regulators are not new to this category. They've been at this for some time. But what they're saying is that they need to redouble their efforts. That is, that the work that they have done so far is not keeping pace with the growth in emissions from this category. LA, for example, needs to cut these emissions by about 80 percent in the next seven years, and that is going to take a monumental effort.

There are constraints to making progress. One is these products are so ubiquitous and they're very hard to regulate each and every category. I mean, there's just hundreds of these different categories. But beyond that, two, industry is saying, look, we have made significant reductions, we're not really sure how much more emission reductions we can squeeze out of these.

And then a third constraint is California law. Let's say you have a roll-on antiperspirant that emits very few pollutants and you have a spray antiperspirant which emits a lot of pollutants on the aerosol can. California can't ban the spray can and require only the roll-on can. The law prohibits them from doing that. So, until something like that is addressed, they're going to have trouble marching forward.

CURWOOD: Gary Polakovic is a reporter with the LA Times. Thanks so much for taking this time today.

POLAKOVIC: You're welcome, Steve.

[MUSIC: Govinda - City of Pleasure “Erotic Rhythms From Earth” Earthtone (2001)]



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