How many aerosol cans do you have around your home? Five? Ten? If you're an average American, you have about 46, according to sources at the Environmental Protection Agency. Surprised? Well, think of all the aerosol products that are available: shaving cream, bathroom cleaners, rug shampoo, spray paint, hair spray, insect sprays, room deodorizers, automotive products -- the list goes on.
Aerosol spray cans were first introduced in 1941. According to one industry executive, "The forerunner of today's aerosol was first widely used to protect U.S. servicemen from mosquitoes and malaria during World War II." Some 50 years later, the industry reports that it "recently reached the 3 billion mark in aerosol units filled." That's a lot of cans.
But the important question is: Are aerosol cans safe for the environment or not? Here are some answers:
Are they safe for the ozone layer?
Until 1978, chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) were used in aerosol cans as propellants. Then the federal government stopped the practice because CFCs are destructive to the ozone layer. Most aerosol manufacturers substituted new gases that are not harmful to the ozone layer; so in general, the answer is yes.
However, there are exceptions. Medical products like asthma inhalers are considered "essential uses" of CFCs. That's understandable. But why are fog horns, photo cleaners and "canned confetti" (!) still using CFCs?
In some cases, as I mentioned in a previous column, manufacturers are using a chemical called 1,1,1 trichlorethane (also called TCA 1,1,1 and methyl chloroform) as a solvent in aerosols. It can be just as bad for the ozone layer as CFCs. So be sure to check the ingredients of aerosol cans, even if they say "Ozone Friendly" on them.
Are the new propellants OK?
According to Stephen Lester, science director at Citizens Clearinghouse for Hazardous Wastes, aerosol manufacturers must use some kind of gas to spray the product out, and none of these gases is good for the environment. The ones most often used are hydrocarbons like pentane and butane. As Business Week magazine reports, "They may be less damaging to ozone, but they're also flammable and contribute to global warming and smog." So they're not the greatest, either.
Are aerosol cans recyclable?
They're made of steel, so the technical answer is yes. But the National Recycling Coalition tells us that very few of them actually get recycled. It's a difficult process, because the cans have to be drained and the plastic parts have to be removed. What's more, cans that contain hazardous material must be cleaned first.
Are they safe to throw away?
Use caution. Aerosols that still contain liquid can explode if they're put near heat or put in a trash compactor. And the California Waste Management Board cautions: "Never throw a full or partially full aerosol can into the regular trash. Refuse collectors may be injured from exploding cans and/or be sprayed with hazardous chemicals." Note: An aerosol can is empty if you turn it upside-down and it doesn't spray.
There's a lot more to say about these cans. Tune in next week for Aerosols II.