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Researchers from the University of Colorado Boulder and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration are undertaking a new effort to update pollution prediction models to account for emissions from common household and commercial products like pesticides, paint and cleaning products.

The project follows a 2018 study that found that emissions from volatile chemical products — many of which live under household sinks, in garages and on bathroom counters — contribute just as much to urban pollution as tailpipe emissions.

But current models used to predict ozone pollution and air quality rely on the outdated idea that cars and other vehicles give off most of the emissions, said principal investigator Matt Coggon, a research scientist at CU Boulder’s Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences. Coggon also studied volatile chemical products in 2018, finding that personal care products like deodorants and lotions contributed to pollution in Boulder and Toronto.

While current prediction models treat volatile chemical products and tailpipe emissions the same, they are different molecules and react differently in the atmosphere, Coggon said, which means they could form different amounts of ozone or particulate matter.

“If we can improve our predictions of ozone, we can make predictions that today is going to be a bad day, stay inside and don’t go outside and exercise, so people have less stress on their lungs and there are fewer visits to hospitals,” Coggon said.

Finding out if different emissions cause different pollution levels will also impact federal regulations and guide efforts to improve air quality, Coggon said. The Environmental Protection Agency awarded Coggon and his team a $396,135 grant to revamp the air quality and pollution models.

A team of researchers at Colorado State University also received a $400,000 grant to study how emissions from wildfires and volatile chemical products contribute to fine particles forming in the atmosphere. The EPA granted $6 million in total funding to nine universities across the country to improve air quality models, including CU Boulder and CSU.

The study starts on Aug. 1 and is focusing on data collected in New York City, but the results will help people regardless of where they live, Coggon said.

“If you want to improve air quality — and we do — if you want to keep making those improvements, you can’t just focus on tailpipe emissions. You have to start thinking more broadly about all these other emissions,” Coggon said.

Brian McDonald, an environmental engineer at the NOAA Earth System Research Laboratories, authored the 2018 emissions study and is a co-principal investigator on the upcoming study.

McDonald’s 2018 research challenged long-held beliefs that vehicle emissions were the primary cause of pollution in urban areas, with the research summary of his paper stating that “… these volatile chemical products now contribute fully one-half of emitted (volatile organic compounds) in 33 industrialized cities.”

“What this project is really trying to do is go the next step further,” McDonald said. “If we think these emissions are there, well, what do they do when they get in the air? What type of chemistry do they undergo?”

McDonald said he sees the study having practical applications for areas like the Front Range that violate air quality standards.