FAQs About Aerosols

Aerosol products have been widely charged with damaging the ozone layer. Much of the confusion is due to outdated and misunderstood data. The following FAQ’s attempts to shed some light on an emotional subject; to separate fact from fiction and to position aerosols in their proper place in today’s environment.

What are aerosols, anyway?

Aerosols are very fine particles of liquid or solid substances suspended in air. Fog, for example, is a natural aerosol. In aerosol packaging, the substance to be sprayed is propelled through a valve as a fine mist or a foam. This provides a safe, efficient means of dispensing thousands of consumer products such as shaving cream, hair spray, paint, and anti-perspirants.

How long have aerosols been around?

Fifty years ago, U.S. Department of Agriculture scientists developed the principle of pressurized insect spray. This gave birth to the container used by American troops to fight malaria in the South Pacific during World War II. Today’s lightweight, low-pressure can is a direct descendent of the ponderous, high-pressure container. Refinements to containers, valves, propellants, and formulas have broadened the range of aerosol products and widened consumer acceptance. Aerosol related jobs, now employ over 50,000 Americans.

What is the ozone layer?

In the stratosphere, some 12 to 20 miles above the earth, ozone (an unstable and very reactive form of oxygen) forms a protective layer that blocks most of the sun’s ultra-violet rays.

What causes ozone depletion?

In addition to natural phenomena, such as earthquakes, among the man-made products believed to contribute to ozone damage are chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), used mainly in refrigerators and air-conditioners.

Do aerosols contain chlorofluorocarbons?

Since 1978 no aerosols made or sold in the U.S. have contained CFCs, except for a tiny fraction (less than 2%) specifically approved by the government for essential medical and other unique uses, such as inhalers for asthma sufferers.

Not only are CFCs absent from the propellants used in aerosols, but there are none in the products packed in the cans either, such as hair spray, deodorants, anti-perspirants, or other personal care items, nor in spray paint, household, food, or automotive products. The industry is in full compliance with rules established by the EPA, the FDA and the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

Why the confusion?

Aerosol manufacturers in Europe and other parts of the world did not immediately follow the lead of the U.S. Industry in substituting alternate propellants for CFCs. The fact that some aerosols made overseas still contain CFCs has caused confusion in press reports and in the public mind about the ozone - aerosol link. However, American consumers can be confident that aerosols made in the U.S. will not damage the ozone layer.

What about the problem of urban smog?

As urban areas struggle to meet federal air quality standards, regulators are attempting to identify any products that emit volatile organic compounds (VOCs) which in turn contribute to lower level ozone. Unlike upper level or stratospheric ozone, which protects us, this lower level or tropospheric ozone is a major component of smog. The smog problem is particularly acute in California, and that state has identified a variety of consumer products which emit VOCs as among those sources which may be regulated once studies have been completed.

So aerosols do contain VOCs?

Yes, but so does finger nail polish, perfume, and mouth wash, as well as pump hair sprays, roll-ons, and stick deodorants. Restrictions on these products are hardly the answer to air pollution. The solution to the smog problem, for example, lies on the freeways and in the power plants, not in the medicine cabinet or the bedroom.

What propellants are used in aerosol cans today?

Depending on the end use, either liquefied or compressed gases are used to dispense the product from the aerosol container in the most efficient manner. Neither type is a chlorofluorocarbon.

Liquefied propellants, such as isobutane, butane, and propane, are natural, organic products which do not deplete the ozone layer, taint the soil, or pollute the water supply. As used in aerosol cans, their contribution to lower level ozone formation is negligible. Compressed gas, such as carbon dioxide (the same gas which puts the “fizz” in soda pop) is used in products designed to deliver a coarse spray at close range; in household disinfectants, for example.

Nitrogen, as used in contact lens cleaners, and nitrous oxide as used in whipped toppings are also used as propellants.

If the contribution of aerosols to air pollution is minimal, then why are they suspect?

Aerosols, still remembered from the pre-1978 chlorofluorocarbon/ozone controversy, offer a convenient target. Perhaps because of their “high tech” characteristics, they don’t seem to fit the profile of a “natural” product. Rather than switching to non-aerosol containers, well-meaning consumers who are concerned about air quality would be far better advised simply to maintain the family car according to the owner’s manual.

Aren’t alternative packages better for the environment?

Once again, myth prevails over reality. For example, pump sprays are generally perceived as being environmentally superior. Actually, the ingredients in the pump container which replace the aerosol propellant, contain as many if not more VOCs than the aerosol can.

Do we really need aerosols?

The aerosol container is a unique package. It is convenient, effective, and efficient. It offers consumers a controlled, “clean-hands” way to deliver personal care, spray paint, household, and automotive products. It is hermetically sealed and its contents are always free of bacterial contamination. It would be tragic indeed if aerosols were to be replaced with less-effective alternatives, with absolutely no resulting improvement in air quality.

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