Once upon a time that “new car smell” often caused many people to feel nauseated, because the odor consisted of volatile organic compounds and other toxins from glues, paint, vinyl and plastics.
Now, it seems, little may have changed. But while questions remain about new car smell toxicity, there have been a number of studies done to gauge and measure the dangers. One of the most recent was conducted in February 2012 by a non-profit organization called the Ecology Center. In their “Model Year 2011/2012 Guide to New Vehicles” guide the group was very clear on the issue: “These chemicals [in the new car smell] can be harmful when inhaled or ingested and may lead to severe health impacts such as birth defects, learning disabilities and cancer.” In addition, the group noted in its study, because most Americans spend about 1.5 hours on average per day in their vehicles, toxic exposure to these chemicals is becoming “a major source of potential indoor air pollution.”
While that alone might make you decide to buy used cars from now on, Ecology Center said that some automobiles are better than others; because toxic chemicals are not needed to make indoor auto parts, some car makers have begun to phase them out.
To that end, the group named names. The top five picks, beginning with the healthiest, were: The 2012 Honda Civic; 2011 Toyota Prius; 2011 Honda CR-Z; the 2011 Nissan Cube; and the 2012 Acura RDX. The two cars with the least healthy indoor environment: 2011 Chrysler 200 S and, in last place, the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. Overall, Honda is the leader in having a line of automobiles with the healthiest interiors.
Concentrations of chemicals fall over time
The group’s report concentrated on the presence of certain chemicals and substances like bromine (which is used in flame retardants), lead and chlorine, while grouping other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into a single category, How Stuff Works Auto noted. The report also incorporates a list of hundreds of popular cars made from 2006 to 2012, while listing the amount of each of these substances present in their interiors.
Among the most common VOCs found in vehicles were benzene, ethylbenzene and styrene, said the report. All of these are known or suspected carcinogens, it added, noting that most exposures to these compounds occur via ingestion of contaminated dust, as well as inhalation of dust, gases and vapors. The report also said that each of those pollutants has been studied in great detail and found to produce unique human health effects.
The report noted that these VOC’s are found in the interior fabrics and materials of vehicles, including coatings, trim, leather, plastics and others. Included in the mix are pollutants from combustible products that have been emitted from other motorists.
VOC concentrations decrease quite a bit over time, the report said, as the compounds off-gas and are removed from the car’s interior. However, it has been shown that increased temperature of the car’s interior also increases the concentration of VOCs and sunlight (UV) exposure reaction products, which can also produce harmful effects for humans.
Tighter regulations in Europe, Asia lead to lower overall chemical use in car interiors
The group rated these car makers as healthiest, with the best first: Honda, Suzuki, Nissan, VW and Toyota. The bottom five, from best to worst, were: Saab, Daimler AG, Chrysler, Mitsubishi and Hyundai-Kia.
Overall, the report noted that vehicles with the least amount of toxins were produced in Asia. On average, vehicles that are produced in Japan or Korea demonstrated a 50 percent reduction in toxic indoor air pollution. Vehicles made in Europe similarly have low concentrations of harmful chemicals, while vehicles made in North America have some of the highest concentrations.
The difference, says the report, is that regulations for the use of chemicals, as well as end-of-vehicle-life ecological concerns, are driving companies there to eliminate use of harmful compounds in vehicle interiors.
While many of us may spend a lot of time in our cars and trucks, most spend much more time at home, where there is also concern about indoor air pollution. Keep it clean, fresh and safe, naturally.
J. D. Heyes