Some fascinating news today in the papers (for example herehere and here) informed us that a recent study in the US indicates that VOC’s (Volatile Organic Compounds) from household products rival vehicle emissions as a cause of air pollution.

I thought the issue are the particulates in our cities’ I hear you say, ‘those PM’s ?’ You would be correct. What a lot of people don’t know is that VOC’s are not good for a number three good reasons. Firstly they react with other chemicals and sunlight in the atmosphere (such as NOx from vehicles) and sunlight to produce low-level ozone or smog and this can contribute to breathing difficulties and poor air quality. Secondly, they can lead to the formation of those small particles that are bad for our health (PM’s) that lead to poor air quality in our cities. So it is not just diesel vehicles that are the PM culprits. It is estimated that a quarter to a third of PM’s derive from VOC’s. Thirdly, VOC’s do contribute to global warming – we think this is because of their indirect effects and ultimate degradation to carbon dioxide – not that all VOC’s are greenhouse gases.

Not that this is new news.

What is new is that VOC’s from household products are now seen as a major contributor as it was always thought that vehicle pollution is the biggest contribution to poor urban air quality. So as engines get cleaner, these other sources become more and more important. Although these studies were in the US, experts think that these results are broadly applicable to most developed cities in the world.

VOC’s are regulated in some product categories but not others, and in some parts of the world and not others. Take decorative paint for example. The EU has had successive regulations to limit the amount of VOC’s contained in paint – however, the EU still allows the use of paint that is ‘solvent-based’. Regulation to move to only ‘water-based’ paints would make a bigger difference to the amount of VOC’s emitted from paint. AkzoNobel, who I work for, is working hard on a program to accelerate the move to adopt water-based paints globally and it would be great to see the whole industry adopt this stance, plus further assistance from governmental regulation in those countries that have none.

But what about the other categories of household products – from the anti-perspirant aerosols air fresheners. Maybe it is time for a joined up approach to VOC reduction?

For more on the background look here, an excellent resource from the European Commission.