The New Car Smell We Love Can Be Surprisingly Dangerous or Potentially Toxic to Your Health
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The New Car Smell We Love Can Be Surprisingly Dangerous or Potentially Toxic to Your Health

high concentrations of volatile organic compounds in the air producing the smell most people love can cause cancer, nervous system problems, and other health issues

November 14, 2019

When it comes to a brand new car, most people comment about the uniquely pleasant smell inside. But a number of studies suggest that the special new car smell, which comes from chemicals used to manufacture the parts, can be causing serious health issues for vehicle occupants. The studies also note widespread complaints of headaches, lung irritations, inability to focus, and a feeling of fatigue.

What causes the smell?

Most of the smell in a new car comes from a mixture of dangerous volatile organic compounds (VOCs) escaping from the parts used to manufacturer the car. In order to make certain components, such as plastic trim, carpeting, paints, adhesives, fabrics, rubbers and sealants, chemical compounds are mixed in various concentrations during the manufacturing process. Some of these chemical compounds are for coloring, but some are used to control flexibility or for fire retarding. They do evaporate or "off-gas" with time, but are very plentiful soon after manufacturing, especially in the confined space of a sealed new car.

More concentrated on warm days

Anyone who has seen rain hit hot pavement knows that heat speeds up evaporation. Heat also speeds up evaporation of the VOCs from the parts in the car. On hot days, especially with a brand new car, the evaporation of the VOCs speeds up and concentrations inside the cabin increase dramatically.

High Chemical Concentrations Measured

Researchers still aren't sure why most people seem to love that new car smell, but they are certain about the types of chemicals inside a new car, as well as the effects they can have on people. Researchers from various groups, including the nonprofit Ecology Center and, RTK Environmental Group, have taken precise chemical measurements of the air inside new cars and found high concentrations of compounds that are known to cause a wide variety of health concerns and symptoms. Some of those chemicals can have their effects magnified by the confined airspace of a vehicle.

Each Car Is Different, Even within the Same Model

Vehicle interiors have a mixture of hundreds of different chemicals, most of which are not regulated. Since they aren't regulated, consumers don't know precisely what dangers, if any, they face. Each car is different depending upon the vehicle manufacturer, part manufacturers, and the various options and equipment in the vehicle. Some vehicles have significantly less chemicals whereas some have significantly more.

Common Chemicals

Some of the most common VOCs found in the air inside new vehicles include benzene, toluene, formaldehyde, styrene, polyvinyl chloride, and bromine. The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) lists many of the VOCs inside vehicles as known carcinogens. Brief exposure to lower levels can cause drowsiness, dizziness, rapid heart rate, headaches, tremors, and confusion. Higher levels and repeat exposure to many of these VOCs have been linked to cancer, birth defects, diabetes, endometriosis, immune system abnormalities, thyroid problems, learning and memory impairment, decreased fertility, and behavioral changes. In some cases, exposure to the VOCs can cause cancer.

Risk highest in first three months

Researchers estimate that the risk to your health is the highest from these VOCs in the first three months or so from when the vehicle is manufactured and diminishes dramatically after three years. But with every vehicle being different, that time frame can vary. Even better, the industry trend is for manufacturers to remove these VOCs from the parts used in their vehicles and providing better ventilation for healthier interiors.

Don't panic

Just because these VOCs are known by the EPA to cause health issues and just because they are present in high concentrations in a new car doesn't mean you have to panic. We are exposed to a wide variety of VOCs every day. Being exposed a little bit every day won't likely cause any serious long term effects. But if you get a new car every year and spend a lot of time in it, that's a different story. The key is limiting your exposure.

ensure fresh air flows

According to researchers, new car owners should ensure fresh air flows through the vehicle, especially 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 open your windows or just don't want to, make sure your heating and air conditioning system is set to the fresh air mode, not recirculate. You can also leave your windows open to help clear the air.