Beware of the new car smell

Finally that new car smell is being recognized for what it is - a soup of hazardous chemical compounds. Japanese car manufacturers have become the first to set standards to reduce chemical emissions in car interiours. The Japan Automobile Manufacturing Association (JAMA) announced late in 2005 that they will apply Japan’s standards for indoor air quality to vehicle interiors starting with all 2007 models manufactured and sold in the domestic market. JAMA Canada can’t say when models with reduced emissions will be available to Canadian consumers. It is possible that some 2007 models made in Japan and sold in Canada will meet these standards.

There are other indications that car manufacturers are beginning to recognize that consumers care about car cabin air quality. Volvo has introduced a “clean air package” in one model, which includes a remote controlled ventilation fan. Ford has certified its European produced Focus as meeting TUV standards for interiour emissions. Partial Zero Emission Vehicles (PZEV) which include special seals, fittings and gas tanks which reduce combustion emissions are being produced to meet California standards. Leakage from gas tanks, particularly benzene, accounts for much in cabin pollution in vehicles.

Among North American manufacturers, Ford says its actively trying to reduce VOCs, DaimlerChrysler says it isn’t working on the issue, and GM says its monitoring global trends.

A 2001 Australian study found levels of hazardous volatile organic compounds in cars “much higher than any building we’ve researched,” according to researcher Steve Brown. Researchers from Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) studied total levels of volatile organic compounds (TVOCs) in car interiours. They found 30-40 VOCs in the cars they studied, including toluene (central nervous system disfunction), acetone, xylenes (fetal developmental toxin), styrene (probable human carcinogen). Researchers found the VOCs at levels which could affect vehicle occupants for weeks to months after car purchase. After about 6 months, levels reached those considered acceptable for indoor air.

Toxic at Any Speed, a recent report from the Ecology Center in Michigan, highlighted two hazardous chemicals in car interiours, phthalates and PBDE’s. Phthalates are a family of VOCs used in a wide variety of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) components, including seat fabrics and interior trim. Phthalates have been linked to birth defects, impaired learning and other serious health problems. PBDEs are used as fire retardants and are known to cause neuro-developmental damage, as well as hormone disruption and possible liver toxicity. Evidence is mounting that both chemicals are accumulating and persisting in the environment and in the bodies of people. Unlike many VOCs, these two categories of chemicals continue to be found in cars interiors for years. According to researchers, the wide differences in levels of phthalates and PBDE’s among cars in their study seemed to relate to the manufacturer and the materials used, rather than the age of the car. The study found phthalates and PBDEs in car dust and windshield film. They are also found in cabin air. Automobile’s 360 degree windows increase UV exposure and can create temperatures up to 192 degrees F (89 C) when cars are parked in the sun. This increases release of both phthalates and PBDEs.

Toxic at Any Speed was released at the 2006 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Ecology Centre followed up by holding discussions with all major car manufacturers. “Many were surprised at what we found,” noted Jeff Gearhart, one of the reports’ principal authors. “Hopefully this will spur the establishment of standards and certification. Then the next step is to make sure the standards are adequate.”

To deal with phthalates and PBDE’s, the author’s of Toxic at any Speed recommend frequent cleaning of cars, parking out of the sun when possible, purchasing sunscreens to reduce interior car temperatures, and opening windows to ventilate chemicals which have accumulated in parked cars. To deal with the airborne VOCs documented in the Australian study, Brown recommends plenty of outside air entering the vehicle while people are driving for at least 6 months after the vehicle has been purchased.

Other ways to decrease VOC levels in new car interiors include buying a model which has been on the lot for a number of months, and “baking out” the car with a combination of heat and ventilation, followed by cleaning. Air filters combining HEPA filters and activated charcoal made especially for automobiles are another option to reduce cabin emissions. As a last resort, there is some evidence that using ozonators for 8-12 hours can help reduce VOC levels in new cars. This is a last resort because ozone is hazardous and if used incorrectly may result in permanent lung damage. If an ozonator is used, car windows should be left open 1-2 inches while the ozonator is running. After ozonation, before the car is used, it should be well ventilated, preferably by leaving doors and windows open in a windy area. Hard surfaces should be washed, and carpets and seats vacuumed well to remove potentially harmful residue.Some people suggest bouncing on seats is needed to fully release ozone residue. Oxonators should never be used when vehicles are occupied.

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