The New Car Smell We Love Can Be Toxic, Studies Say

high concentrations of compounds producing the smell can cause cancer and nervous system problems

The New Car Smell We Love Can Be Toxic, Studies Say
Image: NCCC

That new car smell can be causing serious health problems for drivers, according to various studies, which document widespread complaints of headaches, lung irritations, an inability to focus and a feeling of fatigue. Researchers took precise chemical measurements of the air inside new cars and found high concentrations of compounds that are known to generate these symptoms and cause cancer and nervous system problems. Some of the agents, such as benzene, styrene and toluene, can have their effects magnified by the confined airspace of a vehicle.

Vehicle interiors have a mixture of hundreds of different chemicals, most, if not all of which are not regulated. Since they aren't regulated, consumers don't know precisely what dangers they face. Each car is different depending upon the vehicle manufacturer, component manufacturers, and the various options and equipment in the vehicle. Some vehicles have significantly less chemicals whereas some have significantly more. And the industry trend seems to be headed towards more healthy interiors, which is a good sign.

Polyvinyl Chloride

Polyvinyl chloride (PVC), the agent responsible for the smell, is used for plastics and windshields. PVC contain phthalates, which have been linked to cancer, birth defects, diabetes, learning and developmental delays, endometriosis, and immune system abnormalities.


Bromine comes from brominated flame retardants (BFRs). These are added to the plastics inside cars to make them less flammable. BFR exposure is linked to thyroid problems, learning and memory impairment, decreased fertility, and behavioral changes.

ensure fresh air flows

According to researchers, new car owners should ensure fresh air flows through the vehicle during the first few months of ownership. The best thing to do is open the windows, at least a little, to ensure a continuous flow of fresh air. But if you can't, make sure your heating and air conditioning system is set to the fresh air mode, not recirculate. If you park your car in the garage, you can always leave a window down while you're not driving.