Study Finds ‘New Car Smell’ is Toxic

Published by Nadeem Muaddi on February 16th, 2012

You know that “new car smell” people often rave about? Turns out it’s toxic. In fact, most automakers know this and have been silently making changes to their interiors to rid them of the dangerous plastics and chemicals that emit the scent.

Wired Magazine explains:

Researchers at The Ecology Center sampled 11 components on more than 200 new vehicles, testing for the presence of 11 chemicals such as lead, mercury, bromine and chromium. The off-gassing of such materials contribute to the intoxicating aroma known as “new car smell,” which is less the odor of fine Corrrrrinthian leather than the off-gassing of volatile organic compounds from glue, plastic and flame retardant.

Before you panic, it’s important to note there’s no guarantee that you’ll end up exposed to harmful levels of any of these substances — unless you regularly drink smoothies made from car armrests. It’s also worth stating that automakers have been reducing the amount of toxic materials in their cars. […]

Still, the researchers note that the average American spends more than 90 minutes in a vehicle each day, and exposure to these chemicals can be a major source of indoor air pollution.

The researchers didn’t measure how much of each chemical a typical passenger might encounter, but instead focused on the mere presence of toxic materials. Other studies have shown that exposure levels are higher when a car is new, when the windows closed and on hot, sunny days. Automobiles are particularly brutal environments for plastic because high temperatures can increase the concentration of volatile organic compounds. [more]

That last part is the most frightening. While “new car smell” fades with time, summer temperatures can cook interior plastics – forcing them to release toxic chemicals into the cabin. Jeff Gearhart, research director at The Ecology Center, explains:  “Automobiles function as chemical reactors, creating one of the most hazardous environments we spend time in.”

Still, the study’s findings aren’t all bad. It found that 17% of new vehicle interiors are made without polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and 60% are free of brominated flame retardants – two of the leading toxins found in car interiors and linked to health problems that include allergies, impaired learning and liver toxicity.

Scary stuff. It makes me wonder what’s in those “new car scent” air fresheners available at AutoZone.

One Response

  1. Nadeem says:

    Here are some great comments about this article left on another upholstery forum:

    kodydog: November 2010, I went to a job interview at a company that does maintenance on corporate jets. The fellow took me to the upholstery room and the smell from contact cement was so over powering I became light headed. An exhaust fan would have been nice. I declined the job offer.

    Merge: I can relate to that story, I am going on seven years in the corporate jet industry and we too used to use contact cement so much that it would really become overwhelming at times. A couple years ago thought we switched to a product called Simalfa which is a water based adhesive. It takes a bit to get used to it, but is sure nicer to use compared to the traditional contact cements. It is unusual that place didnt have an exhaust system of any type though.

    Gatsby989: Doesn’t surprise me that it is actually toxic. I always hated it, and didn’t know why anyone would like it, except for the “prestige” of a new car or whatever.

    Several years ago my parents bought a new Chevy Tahoe. A very nice rig, but I couldn’t stand to ride in it for more than short trips because the smell was so overpowering it made me nauseous.

    Rich: My wife’s been saying for years that the vinyl I use on a constant basis is probably bad for me (and I always thought it was the glue!). But my work is done almost exclusively in vinyl and it’s either in storage in my shop, or lying out on my benches being cut and sewn. I don’t see any way around it unless I get out of the business entirely.

    kodydog: Last year we did 7 orthodontist chairs in vinyl. She was concerned about off-gassing and we found a product that is PVC free. You could stick your nose right up to it and smell nothing. It was also rated commercial. She was very pleased. Only kicker, $120 to $150 a yard retail.

    Rich: Yes, there are pvc free coated fabrics out there, but I’d still have to work mostly with what is currently in use since in most cases, the customer is matching to what is on the other chairs, or a new chair that is in vinyl. Time will tell if the trend is away from PVC.

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