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New Car Smell: Not Such a Good Thing After All

Have you ever given thought to the environment inside your car?

New Car Smell: Not Such a Good Thing After All
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Driving a ‘green’ or eco-friendly car is growing in popularity, and car companies are offering many options to reduce your carbon footprint. But have you given thought to the environment inside your car?

If you’re one of those people who loves the smell of a new car, you might want to think about why it smells the way it does. Antimonine, bromine, chlorine, lead and other chemicals are known to pose major public health risks, yet are commonly found in a car’s interior plastics and textiles. You breathe in these chemicals every time you ride in your car, and your exposure increases when the interior of your car gets hot.

Considering the average American spends more than one and a half hours in a car daily, it’s no wonder that environmental groups are calling for safer car interior materials. Children are even more vulnerable to the adverse effects.

The Ecology Center, a non-profit environmental advocacy group out of Ann Arbor, Mich., has been researching the effects of chemicals in cars for more than 10 years.  Their 2006 report, “Toxic at Any Speed: Chemicals in Cars and the Need for Safe Alternatives,” exposed the potential risks to humans caused by these chemicals. Among the more severe is impaired neuro-motor development in young children. Both children and adults are at risk of liver, kidney and lung damage, and asthma and other respiratory problems.

Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center’s research editor, says his organization tests for about a dozen chemicals to use as benchmarks in making judgments about cars, analyzing surfaces with a portable x-ray fluorescence device. Each car is given an overall rating, and new test results come out this month.

According to Gearhart, there are no official government guidelines for chemicals used in cars in the U.S, whereas in Europe two independent regulators, Oeko-tex- and TUV, both out of Germany, govern indoor vehicle air quality.

Volvo is one car company that is doing a lot to monitor indoor air quality in cars and certify use of materials. Beginning in 2009, it eliminated the use of certain leather tanning chemicals and other toxic materials, showing the feasibility of replacing harmful substances with safer alternatives.

Ford uses different materials in the cars they make for the European market—nine of their vehicles meet TUV standards. In 2012, the company will introduce the European-certified C-MAX car in the U.S. It will also be equipped with a high-performance pollen filter to prevent allergens from entering the vehicle.

The Japanese Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) recently announced plans to reduce 13 volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in their cars.  Honda says it has developed and implemented PVC- (polyvinyl chloride) free material for interior and exterior parts.

In the U.S., legislation is being drafted to reform the outdated Toxic Substances Control Act, which is the federal law for regulating chemicals.

What can you do to reduce your exposure to your car’s toxic chemicals? Gearhart recommends the following:

Park in shaded areas or garages whenever possible.

Purchase a car sunscreen to help reflect the sun’s rays and reduce interior car temperatures.

Before getting into your car, open windows and/or doors to allow chemicals to escape from the vehicle’s interior.


Call car manufacturers and ask them to reformulate their products to eliminate chemicals of concern, disclose the ingredients in their products, and sign on to reform principles.

Demand strong government policies by writing to your local and federal representatives.

Sign the letter to Congress asking your Senators to support the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011 at, a website affiliated with the Ecology Center.

Visit to read about policy changes in progress.

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