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Your Car Interior Can Make You Sick, New Study

Car interiors, best and worst

You don’t need to stand near your car’s tailpipe to breathe in toxic fumes—just sit in the driver’s seat. A new study released by HealthyStuff.org from the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan reports that toxic chemicals released in your car’s interior can make you sick, but some cars are much safer than others.


That new car interior smell is foul

You get behind the wheel of your new car, roll up the windows, turn on the air, and cruise down the road. Although you may not be exposed to exhaust fumes, you are at the mercy of the new car smell, which unfortunately is not associated with perfume.

That new car smell is actually the result of chemicals that off-gas, which is released from the interior parts of your car, including the steering wheel, seats, dashboard, and armrests. What drivers may not know about that smell is that it may contribute to health problems.

According to Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center, “Since these chemicals are not regulated, consumers have no way of knowing the dangers they face.” The new report provides results of testing done on more than 200 popular 2011-2012 new model vehicles and reveals the dangers associated with the chemicals found in new car interiors.

If you are the driver of a newer car, here are the main chemicals to which you may be exposed:

  • Bromine, which is associated with brominated flame retardants (BFRs). These retardants are toxic, may disrupt fetal development, and accumulate in the body
  • Chlorine, which indicates the presence of polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the most toxic plastic. PVC often contains plasticizers called phthalates, which off-gas in the vehicle and can accumulate on dust particles and windshields and cause fogging. These plasticizers are classified as endocrine disruptors.
  • Lead, low levels of which can cause nervous system disruptions, learning disabilities, attention deficit disorder, and kidney problems in children
  • Heavy metals, which can cause a variety of symptoms, ranging from mood swings to aggressive behavior, high blood pressure, memory problems, allergic reactions, sleep disruption, and speech problems, among others.

HealthyStuff.org noted that it tested for only a selected number of hazardous chemicals, and that vehicles may contain others, such as chlorinated flame retardants (CFRs), for which it did not test.

Your car may be a chemical reactor
Cars are more than modes transportation, according to Gearhart; they are “chemical reactors, creating one of the most hazardous environments we spend time in.” More than 275 different chemicals have been identified in car interiors.

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Gearhart is referring to the fact that high air temperatures (192 F) in car interiors and dashboard temperatures up to 248 F can elevate the concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and cause the breakdown of other chemicals into more toxic agents. That can be unhealthy for drivers and passengers alike.

The Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) website on VOCs notes that exposure to VOCs can cause symptoms such as eye, nose, and throat irritation, headache, nausea, loss of coordination, fatigue, dizziness, and damage to the nervous system, kidneys, and liver. Some VOCs are suspected or known to cause cancer in humans.

Which cars are most healthy
According to test results, the best picks when it comes to a healthy car interior are the Honda Civic (#1), Toyota Prius, Honda CR-Z, Nissan cube, and Acura RDX. The five worst picks are the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport (worst), Chrysler 200, Kia Soul, Nissan Versa, and Mazda CX-7.

Honda Civic was number one because it is free of bromine, uses PVC-free fabrics and interior trim, and has low levels of heavy metals and other metal allergens. The Mitsubishi Outlander was found to contain bromine and antimony-based flame retardants, chromium-treated leather, and more than 400 parts per million (ppm) of lead in the seats.

Not all the news is bad, however. HealthyStuff.org reports that automobile manufacturers are getting better concerning their use of hazardous materials. In 2006, only 2% of vehicle interiors had no PVCs or BFRs. By 2012, the number of vehicles free of both PVCs and BFRs was 8%. No pre-2006 vehicles had PVC-free interiors, but that figure is now 17%, and 60% are made without BFRs.

How healthy is your car’s interior? If you are in the market for a new car, think about that new car smell when you take a test drive. Ask yourself, could the interior of this car make me sick?

Environmental Protection Agency
HealthyStuff.org report

Image: Courtesy HealthyStuff.org

Updated June 29, 2016



I just bought a 3 year old car and I'm currently having serious health issues. I believe I'm having an allergic reaction, but this is different than a reaction to pollen or pets. I'm having trouble concentrating in the car, headaches, irritated eyes, etc. Any advice for removing the new car smell and issues?
I have found that only Audi, Mercedes S and E class( not C class, GLE or GLS, or older ML or GLs) and the new Tesla cars( not previous Model S) are free of allergenic compounds). If you are sensitized then your best bet is to buy one of these new or used. The other cars emit allergenic chemicals for twenty years or more. The worst cars were the Subaru and BMW. I will never try one of those ever again.
I'm having the same exact problem. I just bought my 2017 Elantra and immediately felt sick. I brought it back and they aired it out, twice. But I didn't help. I feel like I've been through a round of chemo. Lungs burn, cough, burning eyes, and lack of concentration. I'm also weak. I was told I can return it if I wanted to put $3000.00 more down and $100.00 more a month. I have only 600 miles on my car. I don't want to drive it.
I bought a 2017 Elantra 1 month ago and have been ill ever since. I drive with the windows open and the AC on. I am a homecare nurse and I drive all day. I don't know what to do.
I highly recommend returning the car asap. Chemical allergies are different than those caused by proteins. They get much worse with continued exposure and there are no known desensitization methods. Test the next car by sitting in it for 30 minutes then wait 2-4 days incase you also have a delayed response. Consider 10-15 year old cars- like a Toyota if you cannot find a new car you do not react to.
Since I bought an Imprezza Sport in April 2016, I have had serious problems with toxic effects. 1. Overpowering smell of new car; within a week I had headaches, sneezing, congested head, raspy throat, etc. Lasted one month, The dealer took the car for two weeks and aired it out day and night. 2. First time I used defroster was in a heavy rainstorm with black out conditions. A film formed on the outside of the windshield resembling popcorn packaging. Vision greatly impaired on a dark highway. On coming lights from cars blinded vision, and I had to stop the car. 3. After a two hour drive with air conditioning running, developed same symptoms as #1. Lasted two weeks. 4. During two 7-hour drives, blacked out. On one trip, car ran off edge of road. On the other trip, car ran into on-coming lane. (No traffic, fortunately!) 5. Twice after driving with air conditioning running, became breathless when walking in areas that normally are no problem. 6. After driving two hours recently, I was unsteady on my feet that night and the next morning. Has anyone else had such experiences or heard of same? I do not normally have any of these symptoms.
i have just bought a BMW . i have all the symptoms you have experienced . it is so disabilateting during driving and hours after i have trouble breathing and terrible headaches . wayne
I just purchased a 2017 BMW X3 and since I purchased it I have felt nauseous and my ears are popping 24 hours a day every single day. I have been to an eye ear nose and throat doctor and had an MRI and there is nothing wrong with my ears or any allergies I'm not sure why my ears continue to pop with this car. I am miserable driving it and I bought it thinking I would love this car it's a beautiful car and perfect for me except that makes me sick. Do your ears also pop in your car. If so does it continue once you are out of the car. I have flown many times and also scuba dive but have not done that in a few months and I've always been able to clear my ears but not since I bought this car a month ago.
I had a Subaru Impreza for eight months and began having symptoms within days of buying it. I did a lot a research on "new car smell", which I now know comes from volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that are used in all brands of cars. They all have potentially detrimental effects on humans and the more you are exposed the more sensitized you become. According to my doctor, all of my symptoms indicated lack of blood flow to the brain. I got rid of the car, at considerable cost to me, and I'm glad I did. It is horrible to have unpredictable failures, e.g., blackout while driving, breathlessness on slight exertion, and of course there is a good likelihood of permanent damage if you keep driving a car that you know makes you sick.
We drove on vacation a total of 22 hours in our new 2017 Navigator. My eyes burned constantly while in the car. I am weak after returning hone yesterday and have weak and fluttery feeling in my chest. I have never felt like this before and wonder what I should do to get rid of all those chemicals that I breathed into my body as we traveled. Lots of info on the chemicals, but none on getting them out of your system. Please help!!