Week of 1/22/2006

Dear EarthTalk: Is it true that the materials used in car interiors can be hazardous to our health?

—Chris Smith, Bethesda, MD

"Indoor air pollution" in homes and offices has been studied extensively in recent years—with sometimes alarming conclusions that have led the building industry to rethink many aspects of design and choice of materials. But the health hazards lurking inside car interiors, where most Americans spend 90 minutes on average each day, have largely escaped scrutiny.

However, on January 11 of this year, the Michigan-based Ecology Center released a report entitled: "Toxic at Any Speed: Chemicals in Cars and the Need for Safe Alternatives." In this new report, researchers detail how heat and ultraviolet (UV) light can trigger the release inside cars of a number of chemicals linked to birth defects, premature births, impaired learning and liver toxicity, among other serious health problems.

Polybrominated diphenyl ethers (or PBDEs, often used as fire retardants) and phthalates (chemicals used to soften plastics) are the primary culprits. Part of the seat cushions, armrests, floor coverings and plastic parts in most car interiors, these chemicals are easily inhaled or ingested through contact with dust by drivers and passengers. The risks are greatest in summer, when car interiors can get as hot as 192½ F.

Motorists can lessen their risks by rolling down car windows, parking in the shade and using interior sun reflectors. But the Ecology Center is urging carmakers to stop using such chemicals in the first place. "We can no longer rely just on seatbelts and airbags to keep us safe in cars," says Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center’s Clean Car Campaign Director and co-author of the report. "Our research shows that autos are chemical reactors, releasing toxins before we even turn on the ignition. There are safer alternatives to these chemicals, and innovative companies that develop them first will likely be rewarded by consumers."

In preparing its report, the Ecology Center collected windshield film and dust from 2000 to 2005 models made by 11 leading manufacturers. Volvo was found to have the lowest phthalate levels and the second lowest PBDE levels, making it the industry leader in interior air quality. Volvo also has the toughest policies for phasing out these chemicals. Other makers claim they have eliminated some but not all PBDEs and phthalates. Ford, for example, reports that it has eliminated PBDEs from "interior components that customers may come into contact with." Honda reports it has eliminated most phthalate-containing PVC. Other carmakers tested were BMW, Chrysler, GM, Hyundai, Mercedes, Subaru, Toyota and Volkswagen.

With indoor air pollution already listed by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency as one of the top five environmental risks to public health, the Ecology Center is especially concerned that concentrations of PBDEs are five times higher inside cars than in homes and offices. The organization is calling on the U.S. government to ban the worst forms of PBDEs and phthalates from use in any indoor environments, and has enlisted the help of several concerned members of Congress to help write legislation to that effect.

CONTACT: The Ecology Center, www.ecocenter.org.

Dear EarthTalk: What is the status of the seal hunt that used to be held each winter in Newfoundland, Canada? I thought it had ended but then I heard it had started up again.

—Mary, via e-mail

The first European explorers who landed on the eastern coast of Canada in the late 17th century estimated the local seal population to number around 30 million. With such an abundance of wildlife and a huge demand around the world at the time for seal oil and pelts, the hunt was on almost immediately. But biologists estimate that by the early 1970s, when the Canadian government began to regulate marine mammal hunting, only about two million seals were left in the area.

Not until the 1980s did inhumane seal hunting practices, including clubbing and shooting of baby "whitecoat" harp seals, begin to foment public outrage. As a result, the European Parliament banned the import of baby harp seal pelts from Canada in 1984. Meanwhile, the Britain-based International Fund for Animal Welfare (IFAW) called for a boycott of all Canadian seafood that same year. These actions forced the Canadian government to ban vessel-based seal hunting in Canadian waters (although land-based seal hunting was still allowed), significantly reducing the numbers of seals killed over the following few years. This short-term fix allowed seal numbers off Canada’s Atlantic coast to rebound to about five million.

But more recently, blaming seals for dwindling populations of fish on its Atlantic coast, Canada has allowed more kills as well as a resumption of vessel-based hunting. These days hunters are allowed to take over 300,000 pelts each year, most of which are sold in Europe. Canada also reportedly subsidizes the seal hunt some $20 million per year, according to the Canadian Institute for Business and the Environment, in order to help the fishermen who rely on seal hunting for a portion of their incomes.

Meanwhile, animal advocates counter that mismanagement of fisheries by Canada’s government is really to blame for dwindling fish, not hungry seals. Last year Mhairi Dunlop of Greenpeace told Environmental News Service: "The Canadian government has a long history of mismanaging marine ecosystems, yielding to the short-term interests of the fishing and sealing industries at great cost to jobs and marine life."

The Protect Seals Network, an international coalition of some three-dozen groups including Greenpeace, Canada’s Nova Scotia and Vancouver humane societies and others, is calling for a new boycott of Canadian seafood. As one of its many actions, the group recently placed a full-page ad in the Christian Science Monitor urging readers to join the boycott until Canada’s government ends the seal hunt.

According to the website harpseals.org, which monitors seal hunting worldwide and advocates for eliminating the hunt, Canada is set to release a new three-year quota for seal pelts before the beginning of the new season to begin in March. Environmental and animal groups are hoping that officials there will bow to pressure and reduce the total allowable catch of seals from the record numbers allowed during the previous three-year period ending in 2005.

CONTACTS: IFAW, www.ifaw.org; Harpseals.org, www.harpseals.org; Protect Seals Network, www.hsus.org/marine_mammals/protect_seals/the_protect_seals_network.html.