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It’s the Exhaust Fumes, Stupid
New car smell health scare stinks: Ecology Center study measures use of plastics not level in car air.

Of all the ways automobiles pollute the air we breathe, the fragrance given off by the interior of a new car is probably not the one we should be currently worrying about, especially given recent research linking the particulates in truck exhaust fumes to asthma rates in New York’s South Bronx.

And yet despite significant criticism of the Environmental Protection Agency for not tightening the limits on soot particulates (even though groups like the American Medical Association supported such restrictions), there is a new sub-genre of environmentalism devoted to warning about the risks of “new car smell.” As the Los Angeles Times reports,

“A wide range of environmental groups contend that new car interiors contain a mix of unhealthy substances that come from vinyl, flame retardants on seats, lubricants and hidden sealants that collectively make up the new car smell.”

The alleged problem is the “outgassing” of phthalates, which are used to make the vinyl flexible. As the LAT explains

“As PVC ages, the plasticizers form gases that escape from the plastic. Outgassing causes oily fogs on interior car windows that are a headache to clean up and ultimately restrict visibility. Although all PVC undergoes some outgassing of plasticizers, it is more pronounced in a car. On hot sunny days, a PVC dashboard can reach 200 degrees. Ultraviolet rays also accelerate PVC aging and outgassing.”

On November 15, the Ecology Center, a Michigan-based environmental group, released its second “Automotive Plastics Report Card,” which added the problem of “car smell” to its list of complaints about the use of plastics in vehicles. The Center warned in its press release that,

"According to the American Plastics Council, the average vehicle uses 250 lbs of plastic. A significant proportion of this is used to make interior auto parts such as seat cushions, armrests, steering wheels, wire insulation and dashboards. Many of these plastics are made with harmful chemical additives, such as phthalates in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and brominated flame retardants (BFRs). These additives off-gas and leach from plastic parts contaminating the air and dust inside vehicles, putting drivers and passengers at risk.

But the difference between assessing the risk from particulates in exhaust fumes – along with nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, sulphur dioxide, and ozone (produced by sunlight interacting with automotive pollution) – and the risks from “new car smell” is that state and federal agencies monitor the levels of the former, while the Ecology Center didn’t actually investigate how much “outgassing” occurred or how much needed to occur in

For instance, a National Institutes of Health panel estimated that reducing exposure to soot by one microgram (to 14 micrograms per cubic meter of air) would save as many as 24,000 deaths per year – as well as produce significant health benefits to those suffering from lung-related disorders and disease.

The Ecology Center on the other hand, merely noted that the vinyl used in cars contained phthalates and gave car manufacturers targets for removing the vinyl and grades based on how fast they were doing so. The Ecology Center determined that the chemical components in the plastic were dangerous not by referencing the Environmental Protection Agency or EU risk assessments, but by citing the OSPAR Commission, which has the goal of protecting marine life in the North East Atlantic from environmental pollution.

OSPAR, for example, notes that in high concentrations the phthalate DBP is toxic to fish and rodents, but it says nothing about its toxicity in humans from environmental exposure. The EPA risk faq, on the other hand, notes that DBP “appears to have relatively low toxicity. Adverse effects have not been reported in humans as a result of exposure to di-n-butyl phthalate.”

While marine exposure and environmental pollution are separate and important issues, it’s a bit of a stretch to warn the public about the inhalation risks of a chemical that has a low toxicity when you haven’t actually measured whether it's even in the “new car smell.”

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