The hidden air pollution caused by your daily household activities

An image of a person spraying perfume to demonstrate air pollution caused by household tasks
© iStock/cglade

Research from the University of Colorado Boulder suggests that daily household activities cause significant air pollution. Indoor air quality levels could be equivalent to a polluted major city.

Routine activities in the household such as cooking and cleaning can generate significant levels of volatile and particulate chemicals. Although air pollution has been widely studied, Marina Vance, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering at CU Boulder, points out that: “Homes have never been considered an important source of outdoor air pollution and the moment is right to start exploring that.”

Vance continued: “We wanted to know: How do basic activities like cooking and cleaning change the chemistry of a house?…Even the simple act of making toast raised particle levels far higher than expected. We had to go adjust many of the instruments.”

Do household products really contribute to air pollution in a meaningful way?

Joost de Gouw, a visiting professor from The Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES), explained that automobile regulation has helped to reduce transport-related carbon emissions in recent decades, while the significance of household chemical pollutants has only increased.

He said: “Many traditional sources like fossil fuel-burning vehicles have become much cleaner than they used to be. Ozone and fine particulates are monitored by the EPA, but data for airborne toxins like formaldehyde and benzene and compounds like alcohols and ketones that originate from the home are very sparse.”

De Gouw’s opinion is that the research is in too early a stage to make policy or consumer recommendations based on the findings, however it is important that the scientific community is researching the ecosphere.

De Gouw concluded: “There was originally scepticism about whether or not these products actually contributed to air pollution in a meaningful way, but no longer. Moving forward, we need to re-focus research efforts on these sources and give them the same attention we have given to fossil fuels. The picture that we have in our heads about the atmosphere should now include a house.”

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