The Ozone layer is a thin protective layer of gases in the stratosphere which protect the Earth from the dangers of ultraviolet radiation.
In the late 1970’s it was observed that at certain times of year a significant ‘hole’ or thinning in this vital layer of ozone layer appeared over the Antarctic. This thinning has since been attributed in part to a group of chemicals called chlorofluorocarbons or CFC’s.
What Are CFC’s?
CFCs are man-made chemicals which have been around since the late 1920’s and became widely used in industry, particularly for use as refrigerants and aerosol propellants.
Their advantage was that they are stable, non-toxic, and non-flammable and at the time, it was thought that they had no harmful side-effects. However, it was later discovered that this stability also meant that they easily drifted upwards and persisted in the atmosphere. Then when in the presence of strong sunlight, they would be eventually broken down producing harmful chlorine.
This led to scientists discovering that the use of CFCs was adding to the depletion of the ozone layer and their gradual phasing out was begun. By 1990, CFCs were mainly being used for medical purposes only in the West and today their use is banned.
The additives in aerosols which are now attracting the most concern are volatile organic compounds or VOCs. These are colourless, tasteless chemicals which easily vaporize at room temperature and are found in many indoor aerosol products including air fresheners, furniture polishes and cleaning products.
There are a wide variety of VOCs – some which are odourless and some which have a sharp chemical smell. They include the families of halocarbons, hydrocarbons and oxygenates, some of which are linked to adverse health effects.
One research project found that daily use of aerosols containing hairspray, deodorant, and polish could be linked with a 30 percent rise in cases of diarrhoea in children and also to an increase in sickness. Mother’s were also ten percent more likely to suffer headaches and 26 percent more likely to suffer from depression.
If more than one aerosol product was used, then the combined effects could exacerbate the problem and create a build-up of VOCs in the home.
It is thought that pregnant women and very young children are most vulnerable to health risks from VOCs as well as other ‘at risk’ groups such as the ill and the elderly.
VOCs And The Environment
Although VOCs were thought to be a better alternative to CFCs, they do still contribute to ozone depletion in the stratosphere as well as global warming in that they can react with nitrogen oxides in polluted air which leads to the creation of ‘bad’ ozone at ground level.
Because of this, controls have been introduced to try to reduce the emissions but many environmentalists believe they do not yet go far enough.
Using Aerosols Wisely
Although it would be very difficult to eradicate your home from VOCs and aerosol products entirely, there are some precautionary measures you can take to make sure your exposure is limited and to try to keep pollutants to a minimum.
- Where possible, look for alternatives to aerosols.
- Do not use aerosols in a confined space and make sure doors and windows are open.
- Avoid the use of air fresheners.
- Dispose carefully of any old or unused aerosols.