Ordinary household products such as cleansers, cosmetics and paints are now the Los Angeles region’s second-leading source of air pollution, after auto tailpipe emissions, air quality officials say.
Regulators have long known that smog-forming chemicals escape with every squirt of antiperspirant, each bubble of detergent and every spritz of aerosol hair spray. And they have been controlling some products’ emissions for years, with mixed success. But new research shows that products common in kitchens, bathrooms and garages contribute more to Southern California’s smog problem than previously thought.
“It’s the same stuff that comes out of a tailpipe or a smokestack,” said Jerry Martin, a spokesman for the California Air Resources Board. “We’re talking hundreds of different kinds of products, stuff everyone uses. It’s almost one secret area of emissions that you don’t hear about and no one talks about.”
The offending items include detergents, cleaning compounds, glues, polishes, floor finishes, cosmetics, perfume, antiperspirants, rubbing alcohol, room fresheners, car wax, paint and lawn care products.
On a typical day, about 108 tons of smog-forming fumes are emitted from such products used in houses and small businesses in Los Angeles, Orange, Riverside and San Bernardino counties. The South Coast Air Quality Management District released those estimates last month as part of a new comprehensive plan to cut smog and haze in the region.
Consumer products send out nearly twice as many hydrocarbons -- a key precursor to ozone -- as all of the SUVs and light trucks operating in California.
Across the L.A. region, household chemicals produce nearly three times more smog-forming compounds than all of the factories in the area and five times more than gasoline stations, according to air-quality officials.
As other polluters make deep cuts in emissions, the proportion of fumes from consumer products is increasing. By 2020, emissions are projected to grow by 15%, overtaking cars and trucks as the region’s biggest contributor to smog, the AQMD says.
“The regulations we have in place today are just barely offsetting growth, but not making any net progress,” said Elaine Chang, deputy executive officer of the South Coast Air Quality Management District.
“There are just so many people here. Each can or product is very small, but when you look at the numbers of them being sold, collectively it is harmful to the environment.”
Polluting products come in sprays and gels, foam and aerosol, and rely on chemicals to propel them out of a container or as a medium to convey an active ingredient, which may itself pollute. About 90% of the contents of an aerosol can of deodorant, for example, are chemical propellants that contribute to smog.
Household items contain fluorocarbons, ethanol, butane, acetone, phenols and xylene. They evaporate readily and, when the sun shines, combine with other pollutants to form ozone, a primary component of smog that can cause headaches, chest pain and even loss of lung function. The L.A. region is the nation’s ozone capital.
But even before the chemicals escape into the environment, they contribute to indoor air pollution, which typically is more dangerous than smog because the chemicals concentrate nearer to people.
“They are the same solvents that are used in industry to degrease and do other things,” said Kaye Kilburn, professor of internal medicine at USC’s Keck School of Medicine. “When they evaporate, they are transported directly to the brain, where they can be as intoxicating as ether or chloroform. These are palpably dangerous to health.”
Consumer products are coming under increasing scrutiny from state and local regulators. Gov. Gray Davis recently authorized the Air Resources Board, which has authority over consumer products, to collect $10 million in fees from manufacturers to help fund programs to reduce emissions.
The air board proposes two new regulations, one for 48 categories of products, including hair care products, body wipes and nail polish, and one to amend rules governing other products. The measures, scheduled for adoption by 2008, would trim up to 40 tons of emissions daily, less than 15% of the statewide total.
In Los Angeles, air quality officials seek to slash the emissions by 80% in the next seven years, double the rate of control over the last decade. Without the reduction, it is unlikely Southern California will achieve the federal ozone standard by 2010 as required by the Clean Air Act.
AQMD officials are seeking new powers to require that Los Angeles-area businesses use only the cleanest available products. As a last resort, Chang said, the district might consider banning use of some products during summer, when emissions are most likely to contribute to ozone.
California has a mixed record when it comes to cutting emissions. State officials began regulating the products in 1989, and those pioneering efforts set the standards adopted by other states and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.
Overall emissions, however, have been reduced by 37% -- modest compared with some other major pollutants -- in part because many types of products have gone unregulated.
“We need to do more because we still have unhealthful air and we won’t be able to reach the [air quality] standards unless we regulate these categories further,” said Catherine Witherspoon, executive officer of the state air board. “It’s very important. Those [products] have to be the focus of our regulatory effort.”
Cleanup will not be easy. Although environmentalists are pushing for swift action, industry groups downplay the contribution that consumer products make to smog and question the need for dramatic cuts.
Industry closely watches California because actions affecting the state’s huge market for consumer products could force companies to reformulate the same products nationwide. At stake are more than $80 billion in sales across the country. Among the companies affected are Procter and Gamble, S.C. Johnson, Clorox and Unilever.
D. Douglas Fratz, vice president of scientific and technical affairs for the Consumer Specialty Products Assn., which represents about 600 companies, said he is not optimistic the industry can cut emissions much further.
“We are under statutory mandate to get the maximum feasible reductions. Those reductions have been fairly substantial,” Fratz said. “We’re committed to working with the ARB, but it seems unlikely there can be more reductions. Over-regulation isn’t required for us.”
Industry has switched to some substitutes, in the process cutting by half the solvent content of hair spray, one of the worst-polluting products. But clean substitutes sometimes cost more and some products, such as cleansers or glass cleaners, require some chemicals to dissolve grime.
Disinfectants such as Lysol, which air-quality officials say release seven tons of emissions throughout the state daily, are exempt from regulation. Their germ-cutting ability was deemed a greater health benefit than the threat to air quality.
“Solvents are necessary to deliver the product benefits. We use the minimum amount of solvent needed to remove the soil,” said Chip Brewer, director of worldwide government relations for S.C. Johnson. “We accept our responsibility to work with the regulators to make progress, but there’s no magic bullet here. We try to innovate, look at the ingredients, work with new technologies, but consumers like product variety. They like different product forms.”
Environmentalists say industry has tied the hands of California regulators. A key exemption lobbyists wrote into state law prohibits the state air board from approving regulations “which require the elimination of a product form.” That means air-quality officials cannot ban harmful chemicals from consumer products as they would for other industries.
“That’s really handcuffed the state from controlling some significant sources of pollution,” said Tim Carmichael, executive director of the Los Angeles-based Coalition for Clean Air.
“For example, if a company makes a spray deodorant that is more polluting than a roll-on, the ARB cannot require only the roll-on to be sold.”
A backlash against some of California’s existing regulations is fresh in the minds of officials too. No pollution control measure in the Los Angeles region has drawn more litigation than rules requiring low-solvent paints. A 1990 measure requiring low-polluting charcoal lighter fluid infuriated political conservatives, who rallied around the slogan “use a barbecue, go to jail” and charged that air-quality officials were engaged in social engineering.
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Consumer products now rank as a major source of air pollution in the Southland. All figures are in tons of hydrocarbons emitted daily:
* 178 -- cars and light trucks
* 108 -- consumer products
* 48 -- industrial paints and coatings
* 43 -- off-road equipment
* 36 -- recreational boats
* 28 -- commercial paints and coatings
* 22 -- petroleum marketing
Source: South Coast Air Quality Management District