The thirst for greater knowledge…

Written on: April 1, 2019 by Nicholas Georges

The first time I heard Aristotle’s quote, “The more you know, the more you know you don’t know,” was from my father during my childhood. I remember thinking it was such a profound thought, not realizing that he was just repeating something he had heard in his childhood.

While we have a solid understanding of how products are designed to function, we often forget how much we, as a scientific community, still need to learn about the complexities of how these products may interact in the real world. It’s one thing to experiment in a laboratory—a controlled environment—but the complexity of the real world doesn’t allow us to fully understand and control all the variables. That should not stop us from trying, though.

The air we breathe is just one example of this. We all want to keep it as clean as possible. To combat smog, California began statewide actions in the 1960s, and the Federal Clean Air Act passed in 1970 to control air pollution from automobiles and industrial sources. For more than 30 years, the California Air Resources Board (CARB) and the consumer products industry have worked together to improve air quality by regulating the volatile organic compound (VOC) content of consumer and commercial products. These efforts have been expended to ensure that our industry’s products are regulated appropriately as part of wider emission control regulations. This effort in California laid the foundation for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and for other states to adopt regulations designed to improve air quality across the U.S.

These actions have worked. VOC emissions from consumer products, along with emissions from other sources, have dramatically decreased due to innovation and increased regulation.

However, the regulations to control VOCs and nitrogen oxides (NOx) emissions haven’t necessarily resulted in the expected gains, leaving questions about why the control measures were not as effective as projected, and if there are other unaccounted factors that we do not yet fully grasp. I think we can all agree that there is more to learn when it comes to air pollution.

You may recall that a study published last year, entitled “Volatile Chemical Products Emerging as Largest Petrochemical Source of Urban Organic Emissions” by McDonald et al., called into question the CARB regulatory framework—and purported that current VOC inventories and models underestimate the portion of VOC emissions related to consumer products. The Household & Commercial Products Association (HCPA) has several concerns with the study’s modeling and conclusions, but those can be read from in the April 2018 edition of Pressure Points. This research has also raised questions about whether there are gaps in the understanding of how the overall formulation plays into the individual chemical’s ability to react and form ground-level ozone and particulate matter.

What we do know is that CARB staff is in the process of finalizing the 2013, 2014 and 2015 Consumer & Commercial Products Survey Data, and the final release will likely occur as you are reading this column. Over 1,500 consumer, commercial and personal care product manufacturers, formulators and marketers provided detailed information about the product sales and formulations for more than 300,000 products sold in California across 491 product categories. Industry and CARB staff have spent significant time and resources on this survey and the collection of data will provide the most accurate and trusted snapshot of VOC emissions from consumer and commercial products.

This survey is the most comprehensive inventory ever conducted and will form the basis for years of regulatory action and benchmarking. CARB will host stakeholder meetings to begin their rulemaking process on future changes to their Consumer Products Regulation in the coming months.

Another research project from the University of Colorado at Boulder is gaining attention after a recent panel discussion at the 2019 American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Annual Meeting. The HOMEChem experiment (House Observations of Microbial & Environmental Chemistry) at the UTest House at the University of Texas at Austin, led by researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder and Colorado State University, attempts to simulate an indoor environment while measuring various aspects of chemistry and indoor air quality. Findings from the HOMEChem experiment presented research stating that basic tasks, such as cooking and cleaning, can generate significant levels of VOCs and particulate matter inside the home. As you know, a simple activity such as cooking scrambled eggs and bacon on a Sunday morning emits volatile particles, but these efforts are designed to quantify the variety of effects, not just the olfactory effects that lure you out of bed. It will be very interesting to see the published results of their experiment, and how a daily action, such as cooking, can interact with other household activities.

In addition to HOMECHem, there are other studies that focus on the contribution of consumer and commercial products to air quality and the interactive mechanisms at play in the air we breathe. Many are complex experiments and systems that will generate new information and help us better understand the true scope of these mechanisms; however, not all of these studies are created equal.

Other studies oversimplify complex issues by using self-reported surveys where the questions and participant pool are constructed to give the author the answer they want, resulting in conclusions that do not hold up to scientific scrutiny. We must seek out and support the properly peer-reviewed studies that increase and expand our scientific knowledge as we continue to work to fully grasp the complexity of the problems at hand.

If you and your company are interested in air quality issues, VOC regulations at the State level, or are simply trying to understand the science, please don’t hesitate to contact me at We all must proactively collaborate to improve the air quality across the U.S. While we breathe the same air molecules that Aristotle once did, we certainly understand the chemistry at play better than he did. I just hope we maintain his same thirst for greater knowledge. SPRAY