Is “new car smell” toxic?

March 23, 2014

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New Car Smell

Most people seem to enjoy the smell of a new automobile. But is it possible that the fresh-off-the-dealer’s-lot odor could also make you sick? Dr. Heinz Linke

We all know what “new car smell” is, right? It’s the smell of the interior of, well, a new car. Most people like it and some people like it so much that they buy new-car-smell sprays and air fresheners that make the interiors of their cars smell new until they’re old enough to be towed off to the junkyard. But is it possible that new car smell could also make you sick?

A lot of people think so. There have been studies suggesting that at least a few of the chemicals that give a car that fresh-off-the-dealer’s-lot odor may be toxic and not all of them go away as the car gets older. But before we can answer the question of whether new car smell is or isn’t toxic, we have a more important question to answer: What exactly is new car smell made of, anyway?

That’s a tough question to answer. We can start by asking just what it is that we think we’re smelling when we climb into a brand new car interior. Some people think it smells like leather, but only luxury car interiors contain much in the way of actual leather and new car smell can even be found in economy cars. Other people think it smells a bit like plastic, but good plastic, not the cheap kind that $1.99 toys are made out of. Some people think it smells like … well, a whole lot of different chemicals.

That last group is closest to the mark. There really are a whole lot of chemicals making up the interior of a car and some of them release volatile organic compounds (VOCs) into the car’s interior, a process that has the somewhat unpleasant-sounding name “outgassing.” It’s these VOCs that produce new car smell, though some of them produce no odor at all. Some of these volatile chemicals, like ethyl benzene and formaldehyde, are also found in paints and glues, and they can cause problems like dizziness, headache, allergies or even cancer when inhaled in large enough quantities or for long enough periods of time. Some people have compared inhaling new car smell to glue sniffing or even sick-building syndrome.

But are there enough of these compounds in new car smell to make a fresh car interior truly unhealthy or would they require more exposure than the average driver is likely to get to them? The best way to find out is — you guessed it — to do a scientific study. Let’s talk about a couple of the studies that have been done and what they’ve found out.

Putting “New Car Smell” Under the Microscope

Questions about the toxicity of new car smell aren’t new. Neither are studies aimed at determining whether it’s a problem you should be seriously worried about. Probably the most recent of these studies was conducted in February of 2012 by a non-profit group called the Ecology Center. Their “Model Year 2011/2012 Guide to New Vehicles” (which you can download in PDF format here) is unequivocal on the issue: “[T]hese chemicals [in new car smell] can be harmful when inhaled or ingested and may lead to severe health impacts such as birth defects, learning disabilities and cancer. Since the average American spends more than 1.5 hours in a car every day, toxic chemical exposure inside vehicles is becoming a major source of potential indoor air pollution.” Whoa! That’s enough to make you want to wear a gas mask until your car’s old enough for the warranty to expire! But before you decide to buy only used cars for the rest of your driving life, they add that “some cars are better than others. Toxic chemicals are not required to make indoor auto parts, and some manufacturers have begun to phase them out.”

Okay, guys, let’s name some names. Which cars does the Ecology Center believe have the healthiest interiors? Their top five picks, starting with the healthiest, are the 2012 Honda Civic, 2011 Toyota Prius, the 2011 Honda CR-Z, the 2011 Nissan Cube and the 2012 Acura RDX. Check their PDF to see the rest of the top ten. The two cars with the least healthy interiors, according to the Ecology Center, are the 2011 Chrysler 200 S and, in last place, the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport. Honda wins as having the line of cars with the healthiest interiors overall. The report concentrates on the presence of bromine (used in flame retardants), chlorine, and lead, grouping other volatile organic chemicals in a single category in their rankings. The report includes a list of hundreds of popular cars manufactured from 2006 to the present and lists the amount of each of these substances present in each car’s interior.

Fortunately, a lot of the volatile chemicals in a car’s interior go away over time — that’s why they call it “new car smell” — but they don’t go away completely and they can come back on hot days when the higher temperatures increase the rate of outgassing. One thing you can do to combat this process on hot days is to roll down the windows rather than using the air conditioner, letting fresh air circulate into the car and releasing the volatile compounds into the air outside (which isn’t necessarily good for the air outside, but it’s certainly better than being closed up in a car full of toxic fumes). You can also park your car in the shade, so it will stay reasonably cool.

Not all studies done over the years have agreed that new car smell is a danger to automobile occupants. A 2007 study conducted at the Technical University of Munich in Germany concluded that the chemical compounds released inside a car might at worst exacerbate allergies, but don’t pose any other significant threats to human health. The study was conducted by collecting air samples from the interiors of new cars and three-year-old cars placed under 14,000 watts of lights, which generated interior temperatures up to 150-degree Fahrenheit (65.6-degree Celsius), a lot hotter than the average car is likely to become under ordinary conditions. They then exposed human, mouse and hamster cells to these samples to look for toxic effects. None were found. The researchers concluded that new car smell isn’t toxic. However, the researchers also admitted that if the air inside an office building were found to have the same chemical content as the air samples found in the cars, the building would be declared to have sick-building syndrome and the workers would be sent home until it had been cured.

So in a sense both studies agree: Automobile interiors contain poisonous chemicals. But the Ecology Center feels that these chemicals represent a health threat to occupants and the German researchers do not. In the end, you’ll just have to choose which study you want to take seriously. And maybe roll down your windows a bit more than you usually do to let the bad air out.

Lots More Information

Author’s Note: Is “new car smell” toxic?

If I ever put together a list of my five favorite odors nobody would ever name a perfume after, I think new car smell would easily make the top five, right after freshly ground coffee beans and way ahead of wet paint. So it’s rather distressing to discover that it might be hazardous to my health. Given that researchers disagree on just how much of a danger the volatile chemicals in an automobile interior represent, you might not want to start wearing that gas mask quite yet. But I’ll confess that it made me feel a lot better to see that my own car, a 2011 Toyota Prius, was determined to have the second healthiest interior by the Ecology Center. Car buyers shopping for a healthy car would do well to look at the health rankings in their report.

 

John P. Lapotaire, CIEC

#IAQS


Most and least toxic cars? Tests rank 200 models

March 23, 2014

Vehicle VOC'sBy Wendy Koch, USA TODAY

Ever wonder about that “new car” smell?  In a report Wednesday that tests more than 200 vehicles, an environmental group says this off-gassing of chemicals is notably lower in some cars such as the Honda Civic ,Toyota Prius and Honda CR-Z.

Overall, there’s good news. Cars are reducing their use of chemicals, and the best have eliminated hazardous flame retardants and PVC (polyvinyl chloride), according to the fourth consumer guide on the topic by the non-profit, Ann Arbor-Mich. based Ecology Center.

Today, the guide finds that 17% of new vehicles have PVC-free interiors and 60%  are made without brominated flame retardants. Some of these chemicals — found on the steering wheel, dashboard, armrests and seats — have been linked to numerous health problems including allergies, impaired learning and liver toxicity.

“Vehicle interiors contain a unique cocktail of  hundreds of toxic chemicals that off-gas in small, confined spaces,” said Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center, in announcing the findings.

The Vinyl Institute, an industry group, objected to the report. Allen Blakey, its vice president of government affairs, said PVC is widely used in consumer and construction products and is not a “toxic” chemical. He said many of its products are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“The Ecology Center likes to issue scary reports about materials in cars and homes, but in fact they have no data showing actual injuries, and, in fact, no data showing exposures that would suggest harm,” Blakey said in a statement. ” It is not even certain that their analyses are correct, since X-ray fluorescence devices are sensitive tools that must be carefully calibrated.”

Gearhart said cars are particularly harsh environments for plastics, because high temperatures can  increase the concentration of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and  break other chemicals down into more toxic substances. “Automobiles function as chemical reactors, creating one of the most hazardous environments we spend time in,” he added.

The scorecard gave tops honors to the Honda Civic, because it said the car has no bromine-based flame retardants in interior components, uses PVC-free interior  fabrics and interior trim and has low levels of heavy metals and  other metal allergens.

In contrast, it gave the lowest overall score to the Mitsubishi Outlander, which it said contained bromine and antimony-based flame  retardants in the seating and center console; chromium treated leather  on several components; and over 400 parts per million lead in seating  materials.

The findings, posted on the HealthyStuff.org website, include:

  • Most improved automakers in terms of the average ratings for their  2011/2012 vehicles — compared to their 2009/20120 models — are  Volkswagen (+42%), Mitsubishi (+38%) and Ford (+30%.)
  • Two automakers had overall declining average scores: Daimler AG (-29%) and Volvo (-13%.)
  • In recent years, automakers have begun replacing PVC with  polyurethanes and polyolefins, which contain fewer harmful additives and  are easier to recycle.

 

 

John P. Lapotaire, CIEC

#IAQS


Orlando’s Indoor Air Quality Expert Elected to IAQA’s International Board of Directors

March 22, 2014

Indoor Air Quality Association IAQA #IAQSJohn P. Lapotaire, CIEC, has been elected to a six-year term on the Indoor Air Quality Association’s (IAQA) Board of Directors.

Orlando, FL, March 24th, 2014

Last week, the Indoor Air Quality Association concluded their 17th Annual Meeting & Conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The event is the indoor air quality (IAQ) industry’s premier conference and brings together professionals from across the globe.

During the annual meeting, elections were held for a number of important leadership positions within IAQA.  They included positions for both Officers and Directors that provide critical direction for IAQA’s continued growth and mission.  John P. Lapotaire, one of Florida’s most recognized indoor air quality experts, was elected by the association to serve a 6-year term as a member of the Board of Directors.

Mr. Lapotaire is the Founder and President of Indoor Air Quality Solutions & Microshield Environmental Services, LLC.  The Orlando-based companies provide indoor air quality consulting services that include healthy building performance, home and office assessments, IAQ inspections, mold inspections and building envelop consulting services.  Mr. Lapotaire is a Florida Licensed Mold Assessor, Radon Measurement Technician and Radon Mitigation Specialist.  He is also a Council-certified Environmental Thermography Consultant (CETC) and a Council-certified Indoor Environmental Consultant (CIEC).  In his many years of providing IAQ related services, Mr. Lapotaire has been called upon to perform thousands of investigations in everything from residential and commercial properties to schools and other institutional settings.

Mr. Lapotaire has been active in a number of industry associations including:

  • American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM)
  • Indoor Environmental Standards Organization (IESO)
  • American Council for Accredited Certification (ACAC)
  • Building Enclosure Technology and Environment Council (BETEC)
  • Institute of Inspection, Cleaning and Restoration Certification (IICRC)

“It is a privilege and honor to serve on the Board of Directors for the IAQA, an organization I have supported since joining back in 2001,” said Mr. Lapotaire.  “Indoor air quality issues impact so many people and I look forward to sharing my knowledge and experiences in helping to continue to strengthen IAQA’s mission to bring together practitioners of this profession to prevent and solve indoor environmental problems for the benefit of the public.”

For more information about the Indoor Air Quality Association, please visit www.IAQA.org.

To learn more about Mr. Lapotaire or Indoor Air Quality Solutions & Microshield Environmental Services, LLC, please visit www.FloridaIAQ.com, email info@FloridaIAQ.com or call (407) 383-9459.

About Indoor Air Quality Solutions & Microshield Environmental Services, LLC

Since 2001, Florida residents have turned to the indoor environmental experts at Indoor Air Quality Solutions & Microshield Environmental Services, LLC.  The family owned and operated companies, based in the Orlando area, offer a comprehensive approach to identifying and correcting comfort and indoor air quality problems.  Their expert staff utilizes the latest technologies and industry recognized standards to identify and resolve indoor environmental issues.

John P. Lapotaire, CIEC

#IAQS


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