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Air pollution from everyday products is deadlier than previously realized

Air pollution from common everyday products is killing up to ten times more people than what was previously realized, according to a new study from CU Boulder. The experts report that pollutants sourced from vehicle fuels and chemical products, such as house paints, are responsible for hundreds of thousands of deaths every year. 

The researchers refer to the deadly air pollutants as “anthropogenic secondary organic aerosols,” which form from chemicals that are regularly released through human activities. The team estimates that these secondary aerosols are linked to somewhere between 340,000 and 900,000 premature deaths each year. 

“That’s more than 10 times as many deaths as previously estimated,” said study co-author Benjamin Nault.

“The older idea was that to reduce premature mortality, you should target coal-fired power plants or the transportation sector.”

“Yes, these are important, but we’re showing that if you’re not getting at the cleaning and painting products and other everyday chemicals, then you’re not getting at a major source.”

Direct sources of fine particle pollution (PM2.5), including power plants and diesel exhaust, are well documented. These sources of pollution are tied to at least three million premature deaths annually. 

The new study indicates that anthropogenic secondary organic pollutants serve as an indirect source of deadly fine particles. The chemicals are emitted from tailpipes and cooking fuels like charcoal. They are increasingly being used in house paints and cleaning products.

In previous work, a team of experts from CIRES and NOAA found that volatile chemical products contribute as much as vehicles do to the formation of particle pollution. 

“What’s new here, is that we are showing this is an issue in cities on three continents, North America, Europe and east Asia,” said study co-author Brian McDonald.

Professor Jose-Luis Jimenez noted that air quality regulations have tended to focus on volatile chemicals that produce ozone. The current investigation shows that chemicals in everyday products – which contribute little to ozone pollution – may still contribute to the formation of fine particle pollution in a major way. 

“Because this effect has been thought to be small, it hasn’t been targeted for control,” said Professor Jimenez. “But when you take atmospheric chemistry into account and put it into a model, you find that this particular source is killing a lot of people.”

“If you care about air pollution impacts on health and mortality, you have to take this problem seriously.”

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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