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The new assessment focused on what are referred to as volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These compounds can seep into the atmosphere, reacting to create particle or ozone matter, which are regulated in the U.S. and many other countries. They can cause a variety of health problems, including damage to the lungs.
Most people living in urban areas assume that car pollution is still the biggest problem, as it was for the past few decades. But according to the new NOAA report, that is no longer the notable threat. In fact, researchers concluded that the level of VOCs emitted by consumer and industrial products is "two or three times greater than estimated by current air pollution inventories, which also overestimate vehicular sources."
While the Environmental Protection Agency estimates that about 75 percent of fossil VOC emissions came from fuel-related sources, and just 25 percent from consumer and industrial products. The NOAA analysis puts the ratio around 50-50.
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"Concentrations are often 10 times higher indoors than outdoors, and that's consistent with a scenario in which petroleum-based products used indoors provide a significant source to outdoor air in urban environments," McDonald said.
It may seem strange to some that common products, such as perfume and household cleaners, could have such a major impact on pollution. But the effects of common household items starts to make sense when we consider how they are used and stored.
"Gasoline is stored in closed, hopefully airtight, containers and the VOCs in gasoline are burned for energy," NOAA atmospheric scientist Dr Jessica Gilman, a co-author of the new paper, told The Independent.
"But volatile chemical products used in common solvents and personal care products are literally designed to evaporate. You wear perfume or use scented products so that you or your neighbor can enjoy the aroma. You don't do this with gasoline."
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Experts are lauding the new study for pointing out sources of pollution that often get little attention.
"This research is a useful reminder that discussions of air pollution need to consider all sources of pollutants and that measures targeting cars only address part of the problem," Professor Anthony Frew, a respiratory medicine specialist at Brighton and Sussex Medical School, said.
But Frew also cautioned that the study doesn't mean regulating traffic emissions is unimportant.
"Traffic remains an important source of pollution and we still need to reduce the number of vehicle-miles driven per year by personal and commercial vehicles," he said.
Read the full study at science.sciencemag.org.