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Is That ‘New Car Smell’ Toxic?

New Rankings Uncover Toxic Chemicals in Top 10 Unhealthy Car Interiors

What the Ratings Mean

Researchers say that immediately after delivery, new cars have unusually high concentrations of a variety of chemicals, hence that “new car smell.”

In their study, the interiors of more than 200 cars from the 2011-2012 model year were analyzed using a portable X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer. The analyzer detects chemical elements such as lead, cadmium, chlorine, arsenic, mercury, tin, and antimony.

Common areas checked in the car interiors were seats, arm rests, steering wheels, door trim, and shift knobs, among others.

Researchers say the elemental composition of the materials reveals the presence of potentially hazardous chemicals, such as BFRs, PVC, and possibly phthalate plastics. They say car interiors are like chemical reactors, with temperatures reaching extremes of up to 192 F. These high temperatures can increase the concentration of volatile compounds in the car and speed the breakdown of materials.

Exposure to toxic chemicals can be high indoors and in enclosed spaces like a car interior. Drivers are exposed to these chemicals by breathing and contact with dust.

The EPA says indoor air pollution is one of the top environmental threats to public health, since Americans spend 90% of their time indoors. Next to homes and offices, Americans spend the most time in automobiles, an average of one-and-a-half hours per day.

Rating the Automakers

Overall, researchers say vehicle ratings are improving thanks to the reduction in the use of PVC and bromine-based flame retardants by some automakers.

They say the top-rated automaker for healthy interiors in 2012 was Honda and has been since it started testing in 2007. Hyundai-Kia has been the lowest-ranked manufacturer for the last two years.

German automaker VW, along with Mitsubishi and Ford, earned the title of most-improved automakers. Their scores improved by 30% to 42% from the 2009-2010 model year to the 2011-2012 model year.

Daimler AG and Volvo were the only two automakers with declining average scores, -29% and -13%, respectively.

For a complete list of ratings, see www.HealthyStuff.org.

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