Understanding how everyday products impact air quality

Volatile chemical product usage results in exposure to chemicals. In our recent publication, we look at how ambient air impacts provide constraints for near-field exposure models and vice versa.

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As a research scientist at the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), my mission is to protect human health and the environment. I do that by developing new knowledge to inform public policy decisions. Most of my research has been to support Clean Air Act implementation through better representations of fine particle formation in a mathematical model known as the Community Multiscale Air Quality (CMAQ) modeling system. CMAQ allows researchers and air quality managers to understand how emissions (from vehicles, power plant stacks, chemical products, and vegetation) interact in the atmosphere to form criteria pollutants such as ozone and fine particles.

Image created using M3 package in R1.

Volatile chemical products (VCPs) include personal care products, cleaning agents, paints, adhesives, pesticides, and other products used in the home, workplace, and industry. During and after using these products, consumers are directly exposed to organic compounds via uptake to the skin, ingestion, and inhalation. This exposure that occurs around the direct use of VCPs is said to take place in the near field. The same compounds that have the potential to be inhaled can also escape into the atmosphere where they can react and form fine particles. These interactions are said to take place in the far field. To date, the near-field questions of chemical exposure have often been tackled by different teams of researchers than those that tackle far-field questions. To more holistically study and address both the near- and far-field nature of VCP impacts, we recruited a team of experts from across EPA, the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Carnegie Mellon University, and General Dynamics Information Technology Research. The resulting publication in Nature Sustainability reflects the work of that team and was led by former postdoc and current assistant professor at Nanjing University of Information Science & Technology, Momei Qin. Using CMAQ as well as a near-field exposure model, we show that the role of VCPs in near-field inhalation and fine particle formation has likely been underestimated thus far. As we continue to identify compounds most problematic for near-field direct exposure as well as far-field secondary pollutant formation, chemical product reformulations can better reduce the human health burden associated with VCPs. This work has motivated us to continue working on ways to understand the role of VCPs in human health. For example, we are continuing to develop robust methods of estimating emissions that can be used by the next cycle of the EPA National Emissions Inventory (NEI) in 2020. Our article is available at:

Qin, M., Murphy, B.N., Isaacs, K.K., McDonald, B.C., Lu, Q., McKeen, S.A., Koval, L., Robinson, A.L., Efstathiou, C., Allen, C., Pye, H.O.T. Criteria pollutant impacts of volatile chemical products informed by near-field modeling. Nat Sustain (2020). https://www.nature.com/articles/s41893-020-00614-1

Disclaimer: The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views or policies of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.


1Swall, J. M3: Reading M3 files. (2012). https://CRAN.R-project.org/package=M3.

Havala Pye

Research Scientist, US Environmental Protection Agency

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