Reducing that New Car Smell:
How to get toxic chemicals
out of your car

web UPdate Fall 2007

1. Choose a car that contains fewer toxic chemicals.

Check out for ratings of 2007 (and soon, 2008) models, listed by the levels of toxic chemicals contained in interior materials. If you choose a car with fewer toxic chemicals at the start, you are part of the way towards a car which you can tolerate.

2. Let time work for you.

Levels of many volatile organic compounds (VOCs) decrease considerably after 6 months. If you buy a car which has been sitting on the lot for several months, especially in the summer months, the offgassing process will have begun. Dealers can tell you the date of manufacture of a new car.

Buying a car which is a few years old is another way to shortcut the offgassing process, as long as the car hasn’t had air fresheners in it, or been driven by a smoker or someone using fabric softener or fragranced products. Air freshener residue is virtually impossible to remove from a car. In some cases, smoke and fragrances can be decreased enough that a car can be tolerated. Absolutely all surfaces will need to be cleaned and recleaned, as they will have absorbed fragrances, smoke or other toxic chemicals.

You can tell a dealer what you are looking for (type of car, scent-free, smoke-free), and ask them NOT to clean a car before you look at it, if it meets your specifications. Similarly, if you are buying a new car, pass up the free cleaning and waxing, or ask the dealer to use a cleaner and cloths which you provide.

3. Bake out the car.

If you buy a new car, you can speed up the release of chemicals in the car by a process called baking out. “Baking out” a car combines heat and ventilation followed by cleaning. Raising temperatures cause chemicals to be released into the air. Ventilation makes sure the chemicals move out of the car before they are reabsorbed. To bake out a car, either leave the car in hot sun, with windows open an inch or two, or leave heat on for a number of hours. Then open windows wide and air the car thoroughly. After airing, clean all surfaces with a microfiber cloth and a tolerated less-toxic cleaner.

A mild solution of TSP in water (1 teaspoon to a quart of water) is strong enough to cut oil residues on surfaces, but is tolerable to most chemically sensitive people. Borax and washing soda, (beware, some brands of washing soda contain added scent), are other heavy duty cleaners suitable for the job. Vinegar can also be used. Microfiber cloths work well because the tiny fibers have a scrubbing effect, and grab and hold small particles. They are more effective than an ordinary cloth or sponge. Wash surfaces on a sunny day, so they dry quickly to avoid any problems with mold. For people who are chemically sensitive, this process may need to be repeated a number of times.

Leaving a new car outside in sunlight (with windows open a bit), rather than in a garage, will help speed up off-gassing of chemicals, especially in the first 6 months.

4. Absorb chemicals.

Place containers of non-toxic absorbent materials, such as baking soda or zeolite, in the car to absorb some of the chemical odors. It’s important to replace or refresh them frequently, so that odors are not transferred back into the car.

5. Ozone as a last resort only.

Ozone is controversial. The EPA warns that ozone is hazardous. If used incorrectly, it may result in permanent lung damage. Ozone is also an unstable substance, and can combine with other chemicals to create hazardous byproducts. Ozone can also make some substances, like rubber, brittle. There is some evidence that using an ozonator for 8-12 hours in a new car can help reduce VOC levels. It should only be considered when other methods have been used but the car is still not tolerable. 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, ventilate the car well, preferably by leaving doors and windows open in a windy area for several hours at least. Hard surfaces should be washed, and carpets and seats vacuumed well to remove potentially harmful residue. Some people report that that bouncing on seats is needed to fully release ozone residue.

Oxonators should NEVER be used when vehicles are occupied. Some chemically sensitive people are extremely sensitive to ozone. In these cases especially, ozone is not likely to be a good option.

5. Air filters reduce remaining chemicals.

Automobiles never completely gas off. Air filters combining HEPA filters and activated charcoal made especially for automobiles can help reduce exposure to ongoing interior chemical emissions.

6. Other ways to minimize ongoing chemical exposure.

To minimize the impact of hazardous airborne chemicals, authors of an Australian study into VOCs in cars recommend plenty of outside air entering the vehicle while people are driving for at least 6 months after the vehicle has been purchased.

Even after a car has offgassed the worst of its chemical odors, Toxic at Any Speed from the Michigan Ecology Center recommends frequent cleaning of car interiors to remove chemicals which continue to be released and then settle on interior surfaces. They also recommend 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.

See also: Bad, better, best at Health, How to Find a Car with Better Interior Air Quality,
Beware of that new car smell,