Toxic Shockers

Photography by: Gary Taxali

You know that many automobiles are bad for the environment, but they can be just as hazardous to your health when you’re sitting inside of them—and the stronger that “new car smell,” the worse off you could be. According to research from the Ann Arbor, Mich.-based Ecology Center, the average American spends more than 1 1⁄2 hours in a car daily, breathing in chemicals including hazardous flame retardants, plasticizers, lead and heavy metals that off-gas from such interior parts as the armrests, dashboard, seats and steering wheel. The health problems that have been associated with these chemicals include allergies, birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity and cancer. “Since these chemicals are not regulated, consumers have no way of knowing the dangers they face,” says Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center’s research director. The good news is that many automobile manufacturers are taking steps to make their interiors safer; 17 percent of new vehicles now have interiors free of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and 60 percent are produced without brominated flame retardants, according to the Ecology Center.

Smart solutions Vacuum the interior of your vehicle regularly to reduce toxic dust, and open windows and/ or doors for five minutes before getting into your vehicle, Gearhart advises. Then, while driving, keep windows closed to prevent exposure to engine and roadway pollutants and crank the A/C (sans outside air intake). “Using recirculation ventilation settings can reduce levels of interior chemicals by up to 2 1⁄2 times,” Gearhart explains. “Higher fan settings reduce levels more quickly.” There’s another reason to keep your car interior cool, too: “High levels of ultraviolet rays and heat can cause chemicals to break down into more hazardous chemicals,” Gearhart says. So park in shaded areas or garages whenever possible and use sunscreens to help deflect the rays and reduce interior temps. If you’re in the market for a new car, check out the Ecology Center’s consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars at healthystuff .org. Topping the list of safest picks in 2012: The Honda Civic, Toyota Prius and Honda CR-Z.