Your Car Interior Can Make You Sick, New Study
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.
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
Image: Courtesy HealthyStuff.org
Updated June 29, 2016