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Measuring the Toxicity of New Car Smell

Environmentalists have been warning about the poisonous smell of a new car for the past two years. But now that someone has actually tested the air, guess what stinks?

Last November STATS noted the arrival of The Ecology Center’s 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 Center didn’t actually measure the “off-gas” or what it contained. It was enough to know that because the car contained plastic, and off-gassing occurred, it would yield poisonous fumes.

As Health Day News Columnist Michael Shaw reports, the Center has kept on warning about new car smell, but its methods are still those of the junkyard:

“The Center used a portable X-Ray Fluorescence analyzer to determine the ELEMENTAL composition of various objects in the interior, including steering wheels, armrests, seat surfaces, and carpet. Once the elements were identified, the group simply speculated as to what chemicals COULD be present.

For example, the element chlorine was identified. From this, an extrapolation was made to polyvinyl chloride, and from that, an attack was launched on the phthalate plasticizers—a favorite whipping boy of various enviro groups. As we already noted, no study, including this one, actually measured or detected phthalates in the passenger compartment of a vehicle.”

This was all it took for the Center to rate the 10 best and 10 worst cars for interior toxics. But, as Shaw notes, a real toxicologist has finally studied new car smell, and the results are rather different from the Ecology Center.

“A ‘parked in sunshine condition’ was simulated by exposing the vehicles to 14,000 watts of light, via 28 halogen lamps. Numerous sensors were placed in each vehicle, and the illumination was adjusted to maintain an interior temperature of 65° C (149° F). Specific concentration data was obtained on nearly 50 compounds.

Extracts from the air samples were tested on cultures of human and hamster cells typically employed to determine toxicity. A slight but statistically significant aggravating effect on IgE-mediated immune response of only the new vehicle indoor air was identified, and this could be relevant for sensitive individuals. Beyond that, there were no indications of toxicity.”

But why let measurement get in the way of a good story?


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