Aerosols are not alone in adding volatile organic compounds to the air


April 22, 1992|By Susan McGrath | Susan McGrath,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

Dear Ms. Household Environmentalist: We've been informed that CFCs were banned from use in aerosols in the United States in the late 1970s. Does that mean that aerosols are environmentally benign? If so, why are pumps still being offered as an alternative?

Dear Reader: Chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, have been fingered as the big villains in the destruction of the ozone layer, a layer of gases high in the stratosphere that shield the Earth from dangerous ultraviolet rays. CFCs are artificial chemical compounds that have a variety of very useful properties. For example, when used as a propellant in an aerosol can, they deliver the active ingredient -- say, fabric protector -- in an extremely fine mist.

As you point out, CFCs have been banned for most aerosol uses in industrialized countries for years. Even so, there are two reasons why aerosols are still widely regarded as bad for the environment.

The first is that many people simply don't know that most aerosols don't use CFCs as a propellant anymore. This ignorance is, understandably, extremely aggravating to the aerosols industry.

On the other hand, the propellants that replaced CFCs in many kinds of aerosols are made of pentane, butane and other volatile organic compounds. These gases are similar to the ones that come out of the tailpipe of your car. They contribute to smog. Pump bottles don't contain a propellant and are generally better for the environment.

However, and this is a pretty big however, many of the products in your medicine cabinet, be they in pump, tube, tub or bottle, contain volatile organic compounds -- solvents that make them be applied wet, then evaporate. Perfume and hair gel, for example, contain a high proportion of VOCs -- high enough that California's air quality watchdog agency measures their VOC output, statewide, in the hundreds of tons and is requiring manufacturers to bring their levels down.

Where does this leave you? Environmental experts generally advise consumers to forgo aerosols in favor of products in other forms. This seems a little unfair to the aerosols industry, when your tube of hair gel may be every bit as bad as your aerosol can of hair spray. Perhaps the best thing is to cut back your use of commercial household products altogether.

Dear Ms. H.E.: Regarding your suggestion to throw out lead foil cork covers: Boats need lead in their keels, and I know people who make their own bullets who use lead foil. How about a gun shop? They may provide some ideas of places to recycle.

It seems to me a little more research is in order before heading to the landfill with lead foil.

Dear Reader: I'm beginning to suspect that a lot of my readers attended the same letter-writing seminar. So many of them sign off with that ". . . a little more research . . ." flourish.

Well, this time you may be right. I won't bore you with my excuses, though I assure you they are extremely compelling, world-class excuses that you yourself might use sometime.

Here is what "a little more research" uncovered: Non-ferrous metal scrap dealers will take your lead foil. They will also take old lead pipes, lead chimney flashing and any other lead you may have lying around. To find a dealer, look in the Yellow Pages under Scrap Dealers or Recyclers.

Dear Ms. H.E.: Can you suggest a book that deals with all kinds of home pests without recommending pesticides as the only way to do them in? All the sources I find seem to recommend zapping every insect that so much as twitches with a toxic chemical.

Dear Reader: Here's my favorite: "Dan's Practical Guide to Least Toxic Home Pest Control." It addresses just about every critter you are likely to run into. It is easy to understand and use. And it is hilarious. The only problem is that it is so funny you run the danger of curling up with the book while the termites make off with the house. If your library doesn't have a copy of the book, send $10 to Northwest IPM, P.O. Box 11445, Eugene, Ore. 97440.

(Feeling environmentally incorrect? Write a letter to Ms. Household Environmentalist on recycled, unbleached paper, of course, using soy-based ink and send it to P.O. Box 121, 1463 E. Republican St., Seattle, Wash. 98112.)

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