Airborne paint, pesticide particles are deadlier than scientists thought

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Air pollution produced by daily chemical usage, including particles from fuels, paints and pesticides, are deadlier than scientists thought. According to a new study, published Tuesday in the journal Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, particle pollution from chemical usage is responsible for between 340,000 and 900,000 premature deaths each year — 10 times greater than previous estimates. The study, led by scientists at the University of Colorado, relied on chemical usage and particle pollution data from NASA and NOAA. “The older idea was that to reduce premature mortality, you should target coal-fired power plants or the transportation sector,” lead study author Benjamin Nault said in a press release. “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,” said Nault, a postdoctoral researcher at Colorado’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. Most air pollution studies focus on fine particle pollution, called PM2.5. Airborne soot and smog particles, also generated by fuel combustion and other human activities, are responsible for 3 to 4 million premature deaths globally per year. Regulations and improved filtering technologies have helped reduce the levels of PM2.5 emitted by power plants, factories and vehicles, but such reforms — and many of the studies designed to measure their impact — largely ignore indirect, “secondary inorganic” sources of particles. For the latest study, scientists compiled data related to indirect, secondary inorganic sources of particles from 11 comprehensive air quality studies conducted in cities around the world. Researchers combined the localized chemical emissions data with satellite data and ran it through complex air quality models to identify emissions patterns across different parts of the world, and ultimately, to quantify the problem on a global scale. The analysis revealed a strong relationship between daily chemical usage — cooking fuels, industrial solvents, house paints, cleaning products and more — and particle pollution. The findings echo those of previous surveys suggesting volatile chemical products are as much to blame for particle pollution as car exhaust. “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 co-author Brian McDonald, a NOAA scientist. While scientists have periodically looked at the impacts of volatile chemicals, most have focused on their contribution to ozone formation. The latest research suggests these chemicals are also a primary source of PM2.5. Researchers hope their findings will move policy makers and regulators to develop stronger regulations. 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