New Car Smell: It’s Not So Sweet

New cars are great, aren’t they? On top of looking all shiny and perfect, they also just smell new. It’s a unique odor, isn’t it? And it goes away after a few weeks, never to appear again. But it’s great while it lasts.

Volvo cars emitted the lowest levels of toxic chemicals in recent tests.© VOLVO

Or is it? A new study by the Michigan-based Ecology Center (EC), Toxic at Any Speed: Chemicals in Cars and the Need for Safe Alternatives, warns that the concentrations of some toxins in car interiors is five to 10 times higher than the levels found in homes or offices, “thus making cars a significant contributor to overall indoor air pollution.” Driving for 90 minutes could expose you to the same level of chemicals as spending eight hours inside your home, the study said.

The problem is that many parts of your car interior, including seats and dashboards, “offgas” chemicals, particularly when the car is new. What you’re smelling, at least in part, is the release of those chemicals. I first wrote about this problem back in 2001, when there was little available scientific information on the subject and nobody got too excited.

This time around, the Ecology Center hit a nerve, with reports in the Detroit Free Press and Automotive News, as well as on CNN and several other TV outlets. “In response to the report, we’ve heard high levels of concern about these chemicals from auto companiesaround the world,” says Jeff Gearhart, EC’s clean car campaign director. “Volvo and Hyundai have taken the greatest initiative.The response has shown that the case for eliminating the use of these chemicals in autos is stronger then ever before.”

Hyundai and Ford both announced that they had eliminated most uses of one of the classes of chemicals, polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs). Ford-owned Volvo, which had the lowest levels of the problematic chemicals in the EC tests, issued a release stating, “Volvo has been working for many years on creating a clean interior climate, which is also suitable for people who are particularly sensitive, such as those suffering from asthma and allergies.”

I know about Volvo’s work firsthand, having seen its “nose team” in action on a trip to Sweden. Here’s how it works: “The materials brought in for smell-testing are prepared very carefully, with small pieces placed in sterilized glass jars. They are then put into ovens and warmed to different temperatures to simulate the typical changes in cabin climate experienced by Volvo owners around the world, as the hotter the interior becomes, the more it tends to give off a smell. This is relevant in warm cars during the winter months, as well as on summer days when getting into a baking car can literally be a breath-taking experience. Every member of the Volvo nose team inhales deeply from each jar and gives each component a score between one and six, where ‘one’ is unnoticeable and ‘six’ is overpowering. Nothing that scores more than ‘three’ will be approved for use in a Volvo interior.” Not high-tech, but it works.

Volvo uses a “nose team” to ensure very low chemical emissions in its car interiors.© VOLVO

Americans spend a lot of time in the closed environment of their cars, an average of 100 minutes a day. PBDEs are used in plastic parts such as arm rests, electronic enclosures, wire insulation and floor coverings. It is especially concentrated in the film that builds up on the inside of car windows. Another class of potentially worrisome chemicals, phthalates, are used as plasticizers and are found in such polyvinyl chloride (PVC) parts as seat fabrics, instrument panels and interior trim.

The EC study found that the chemical levels in your car interior are elevated by heat and ultra-violet light, so the problem is more acute during the summer, when interior temperatures can reach 192 degrees Fahrenheit (which is why your dog needs open windows). Parking in the shade, using a folding sunscreen and opening windows are three ways to help control the problem.

Heat may be a factor in the study’s finding of relatively low levels of the flame retardant “Deca” inside cars. That would be good news, but one hypothesis is that high temperatures are causing the Deca to break down inside the car and create even more dangerous and lighter PBDEs (some of which have been banned in Europe and voluntarily discontinued in the U.S.)

For its tests, EC collected windshield film and dust samples from vehicles produced by 11 carmakers. The results have nothing to do with what the cars cost. In fact, Mercedes had the highest concentration of PBDEs, followed by Chrysler, Toyota, Subaru and Volkswagen. Best in PBDE were Hyundai, Volvo, BMW and Honda. For phthalates, Hyundai, Ford, Toyota and Chrysler had the highest levels, and Volvo (again), BMW, VW and General Motors the lowest.

We’re exposed to PBDEs through dust, food and air. PBDE concentrations in the breast milk of American women are 10 to 100 times higher than in Europe, where laws have been enacted phasing out the chemicals from several categories of consumer products. Japanese carmakers have also enacted a voluntary agreement to reduce volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in the interiors of their vehicles. And despite federal inaction in the U.S., nine states have acted to ban two forms of PBDE.

In experiments with lab animals, PBDE exposure was found to cause problems with brain development, memory, learning and behavior. It can also, according to the EC, decrease thyroid hormone levels and affect reproduction. The chemical structure of PBDEs is similar to that of polychlorinated biphenyls (PCBs), which were banned in the U.S. in 1976.

The American study is not the first of its kind. The Australian government research branch, CSIRO, also reported that new car smell may be hazardous to your health. CSIRO’s Dr. Steve Brown says, “Just as air inside our homes and workplaces is often much more polluted than the air outside, so sitting in a new car can expose you to levels of toxic emissions many times [safe levels].”

According to an account of the Australian study published by Environmental News Network, some motorists, especially the chemically sensitive, have reported various types of discomfort in new cars. These range from feeling drowsy to eye or throat irritation, headaches and just feeling “spaced out.”

Two new Australian-made cars were tested and found to have 64,000 micrograms per cubic meter of VOCs, a dangerous level that decreased 60 percent after the first month. The Australian indoor air goal is 500 micrograms per cubic meter. David Lang of the Australian Automobile Association says the study shows the need “for further study on motorists to identify any effects that may impair driving.”

An earlier study of a 1995 Lincoln Continental found 50 different VOCs. The research suggested that the chemicals were emanating from a combination of lubricants, solvents, adhesives, gasoline and plastics.

For his part, Allen Blakey, a spokesperson for the Vinyl Institute, is a bit defensive. “Some people love new car smell,” he says, adding, “We think that phthalates are getting too much credit for new car smell. There are many things that go into making it smell that way, including lubricants, treatments, colorants and cleaning agents.”

Also defending some of the chemicals is the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, whi

ch told CNN that its own 10-year assessment showed that Deca is safe. “If automobile manufacturers follow the guidance in the [EC] report, it could result in lowering fire safety for the public, as well as promoting the use of unidentified alternative substances about which very little may be known,” the group said.

But alternatives are out there. The Lowell Center for Sustainable Production at the University of Massachusetts has studied several alternatives to Deca in textiles, and concluded, “While there is no single replacement [for Deca], the multitude of options on the market makes it clear that viable market-ready approaches exist.”

Dow Chemical is one company that claims to be attacking the problem with a new form of polyurethane foam that produces reduced offgassing. Steven English, Dow Chemical business development director for polyurethanes, says that the company’s product has been on the market for two years, selling not only to carmakers (the actual client list is proprietary) but also to manufacturers of bedding and other household foam. “Plastics are great catalysts; they react with everything,” English said. Emissions are not only hazardous to your health, but they also contribute to plastic discoloration and windshield fogging.

Another manufacturer, Siemens VDO Automotive, says it is close to bringing to market “wellness sensors” that can automatically control several interior factors, including carbon dioxide levels and smell. The system would activate filters and recirculation systems when passing a field recently sprayed with manure, or it “could allow more fresh air in the car and dehumidify the cabin if a carload of passengers were fogging the windows.”

EC thinks that carmakers should reduce the health risk to car occupants by phasing out both PBDEs and phthalates, acting immediately to voluntarily comply with current Japanese and European initiatives. The group says governments should initiative phase-out timelines and drivers should take the precautions outlined above.

New cars may smell like success, but breathing in that heady aroma could be hazardous to your health.

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Ecology Center Report