Your New Car, Is It Toxic?

DriverSide uncovers whether the worrying smell of a new vehicle is dangerous to your health.
By Jon Alain Guzik
You diligently watch what you eat, making sure that the food you serve your family is healthy and, if you're really on top of things, organic. You make sure that the furniture and appliances inside of your home are safe and well maintained. There isn't a flake of lead-based paint anywhere in your home. It's a clean zone, away from the toxicity of the modern world.

But what about that new auto in your driveway, just how safe and non-toxic is the interior of your automobile? Does that "new car smell" contain toxic chemicals that could be bad for your health?

According to a recent study by the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Mich., the answer is yes. The group analyzed the elemental composition of over 200 late-model cars, trucks and SUVs for off-gassing chemicals from interior auto parts.

The chemicals of concern for the Ecology Center were bromine from flame-retardants, chlorine from PVC and plastics, lead and other heavy metals used in the manufacture of automobiles. The use of these chemicals has been known to cause birth defects, liver toxicity, cancer and certain allergies.

According to the Ecology Center, "since the average American spends more than one-and-a-half hours in a car every day, toxic chemical exposure inside vehicles is a major source of potential indoor air pollution."

Their Methodology
A total of 15 components from each vehicle were selected for sampling, including the steering wheel, shift knob, armrest, center console, dashboard, headliner, carpet, seat front, seat back, seat base, hard door trim, soft door trim, body sealer, wiring, window seal and wheel weights. The vehicles were then rated on a scale from zero to five, and each model was given a low, medium or high concern rating as well. The results of the study are quite surprising and give an interesting look into the chemical makeup of a vehicle's interior.

But what about the vehicle you already own? The Ecology Center's Jeff Gearhart offers some advice. "A few steps to take are keeping the temperature of the vehicle down, keeping the vehicle well ventilated and making sure to keep the interior clean from dust," Gearhart explains. "We inhale the dust, which increases our exposure levels to the chemicals."

However, the results from the Ecology Center's study tell only part of the story. A majority of the major car manufactures have started to produce greener automotive interiors to go along with the trend of more environmentally friendly vehicles.

For example, Ford's 2008 Mustang featured cleaner, less toxic soy-based seat foam cushions, and the 2009 Escape and Escape Hybrid both feature seating surfaces made from 100% recycled fabric. Volvo, which is owned by the Ford Motor Company and shares in the environmental research and technology, has been developing cleaner, less abrasive interiors since the company's inception. Their S40 and V50 models scored well in the Ecology Center's testing.

“We don't have toxic smells. We have standards that have eliminated toxic chemicals, be they the switch from chromium to vegetable tanning to no nickel metals in the interior. We offer sweet Scandinavian air in our cars,” says Volvo’s Daniel Johnston. “We looked for ways to reduce pollution. We’ve reduced solvents and waste from about 32 pounds per car to about 2.5 pounds, and all of our cars use water-borne paints. About 95 percent of the metals we use in our cars come from recycled metals. We have a database for each vehicle component, right down to nuts and bolts, that gives us a life cycle accounting, which helps us determine if we use one type of material over another.”

Though the effect of the chemicals in your car may be hard to quantify, it is still something for the consumer to think about. “Our overall goal is to help the consumer take prudent reasonable steps and to educate them,” adds Gearhart. “Any one source is not going to affect someone’s health. We want them to look at their overall environment and make decisions from there.”


Need auto repair help? Ask a DriverSide auto mechanic for free.

Track Your Service Records
Get Recall Alerts
Get Updated Value Estimates on Your Car.
Go to a Review