Q I hear the air quality in my home can be worse than that of outdoor air. What's the source of all those fumes?
A Think you're safe when you close your front door, walk into your home and don't find a burgler? Well, your lungs ain't. Anyone with chemical sensitivities knows how harmful our houses can be, but this isn't just a health issue, kids the planet's also suffering.
What's behind all this bad air? Three letters: VOC, or volatile organic compounds. You might have heard me kvetch about them before. They're basically chemicals that contain some carbon and may not only give you headaches, make you dizzy and irritate your lungs to varying degrees, but also help form ground-level ozone, aka smog. We might have stopped burning a hole in the ozone layer when we banned CFCs in the late 80s, but consumer goods still fuel the ground-level, smog-creating kind. Not good.
Oh, but how much harm can your hairspray and deck refinishing do? Well, the Ohio Environmental Protection Agency just reported that source emissions of VOCs (including lawn mowers, beauty care products, paints, etc.) are responsible for nearly a third of all ground-level ozone woes! It's forcing companies to reformulate their products so they contain fewer VOCs, to conform with voluntary federal EPA standards.
Still, the new standards allow air fresheners to be up to 40 per cent VOCs; hair spray 55 per cent; nail polish remover a whopping 75 per cent. Other home sources of VOCs? Here's a little list to give you a taste (try and say them all in one breath): glues, cooking sprays, windshield washer fluids, carpet cleaners, fabric refreshers, aerosol degreasers, aerosol deodorants, insect repellents, shaving gels, tile cleaners, wood cleaners, waterproofing footwear sprays and more. VOCs can also offgas from new carpets and pressed wood furniture.
No doubt some are minor offenders, like hair gel or metal polish. And some types of VOCs are more potent than others. Nonetheless, thanks to these compounds, the air in your home is generally two to five times worse than outdoor air, VOC-wise. That can rise to 100 times worse fairly regularly, and up to 1,000 times worse if you've been stripping paint or sealing floors.
The rate of emission may decrease over time as the VOCs offgas, but formaldehyde, for instance, has been found to offgas from old desks years after they were purchased.
And while you might think you're hurting no one but yourself, a few thousand people die from smog pollutants every year in Ontario.
How do you shift your home from VOC villain to VOC-free haven?
For one, you need to say sayonara to gas-powered lawn mowers or leaf blowers. Two, you need to ask for low-VOC options whenever you go looking for paints, sealants, glues and the like (water-based options are a good start). And three, always choose the non-aerosol option if you're buying antiperspirants, air fresheners, cleaners, degreasers, etc.
And while sharing pollutants with the outside world isn't ideal, if you are bringing VOCs into your house you can help your indoor air quality by opening your windows.
Q I have a 17-year-old Corolla. It's still very fuel-efficient and passes all the Drive Clean tests. Is it really that polluting?
A No doubt car manufacturing is a dirty business. Enormous amounts of resources and energy go into extracting metals and refining plastics, then shaping them into a driveable machine. But keeping an old beater around can be even worse.
First, pre-1988 cars make up only 18 per cent of cars on the road but create 50 per cent of car emissions! Old clunkers, no matter how well maintained, are serious air quality offenders. But it still passes emissions tests, you say? You have to keep in mind that a 1990 car is being tested according to 1990 emissions standards, "with an allowance for vehicle deterioration," according to Drive Clean Ontario. Old cars would never pass modern emissions standards.
And while the overall fuel economy of today's cars is, sadly, no better than 1980 models (thanks, Ford), tailpipe emissions have been subject to a massive clean-up op. According to Jim Kliesch, manager of Greenercars.com, this improvement to newer cars makes your 17-year-old set of wheels an extra serious offender.
I understand your reluctance to support new-car culture (not to mention that they cost a hell of a lot!), but you'd be better off buying a five-year-old Corolla than puttering around in a car that remembers MC Hammer pants. Of course, if you're biking or busing most of the time and using the car only occasionally, my finger-wagging will be much gentler than if you're driving that heap every day!
For the record, in terms of greenhouse gases, extracting the metal to make a car and transporting its parts to the plant account for 20 per cent of its lifetime emissions. Building the actual car makes up another 12 per cent, but the stuff coming out of the tailpipe constitutes 68 per cent.
Also, when you're ready to retire Mr. Jalopy, make sure to recycle him through CarHeaven.ca. Don't want his toxic parts leaching from junk yards.