Los Angeles, Griffith Observatory and air pollutionLos Angeles, Griffith Observatory and air pollution.Photo credit: DAVID ILIFF. License: CC-BY-SA 3.0

Chemical products that contain compounds refined from petroleum, like household cleaners, pesticides, paints, and perfumes, now rival motor vehicle emissions as the top source of urban air pollution, according to a surprising NOAA-led study by researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder (CU Boulder) and other institutions.

People use a lot more fuel than they do petroleum-based compounds in chemical products—about 15 times more by weight, according to the new assessment. Even so, lotions, paints, and other products contribute about as much to air pollution as the transportation sector does, said lead author Brian McDonald, a scientist at the CU Boulder-based Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) working in the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Chemical Sciences Division.

In the case of one type of pollution—tiny particles that can damage people’s lungs—particle-forming emissions from chemical products are about twice as high as those from the transportation sector, his team found. McDonald and colleagues from NOAA and several other institutions reported their results Feb. 15 in the journal Science.

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