Enjoying Your New Car Smell? Or choking on it?

Update: You can now visit www.Healthy Car.org to find out which cars are the best and which are the worst for internal toxins. The cars tested are American models, but many of them are available here, although we cannot assume that the manufacturing processes here are the same.

Ever sat in a new car and thought to yourself "hmmm... what a lovely smell"? Ever wondered what causes it? Every wondered if it was bad for your health? Let's explore these questions. We hope that perhaps it will encourage some thought and we will also offer some advise on avoiding the harmful effects. Read on.

What is the cause of new-car smell?

Inviting Cabin
Looks smart, smells good, so why do I have a sore throat?

Car interiors are complicated mixes of glass, plastic, leather, cloth fabric, and metal. Much of this is glued together. Over time volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are released into the air within the car. So actually, what we are calling smell is not some sent invented by car manufacturers to make us feel good about our new purchase, they are actually chemical fumes resulting from the manufacturing process, and they do us no good at all.

What are the harmful effects of new-car smell?

VOCs are leached from other manufactured items too, including furniture and appliances, and even computers. The harmful effects caused by VOCs are known to include: headaches, sore throats, nausea and drowsiness. These factors have brought about the need for governments around the world to take action and impose guidelines for what are considered "safe" levels of VOCs for home and office environments.

The toxic mix also includes chemicals that can cause cancer: styrene, benzene and formaldehyde.

As yet there are no guidelines for VOC levels in cars. But that doesn't mean that the levels in cars are not harmful! A study done in Australia by the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in 2001 concluded that the VOC levels in car interiors was higher than any buildings they had researched, and suggested that work needed to be done to reduce harmful emissions within cars.

Okay, so what's being done about it?

The first motor company to take up the issue in any meaningful way is Toyota and have recently announced their intention to reduce levels of VOCs in all its new cars to those recommended by Japanese Health Ministry for air quality in homes by 2007. Currently Toyota have 6 models that meet these standards.

Honda, Mazda, Mitsubishi Motors, and Nissan are all following Toyota's lead and are already providing cars with lowered levels of VOCs.

This should catch on around the world, but predictably America will not be fast movers. The country that doesn't think that the greenhouse effect is really all that bad, and thinks that the Kyoto Accord would be bad for the US economy and so pulled out, is also the country that refuses to even acknowledge that there is any issue with VOCs.

This was taken from a recent article on the USA Today website:

    "The Washington-based Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents nine carmakers including General Motors, Ford and DaimlerChrysler, says it does not follow the issue of volatile organic compounds. DaimlerChrysler said it has no initiatives on the volatile organic compound-induced new-car fumes."

What can we do about it?

Firstly don't panic. This is a serious health issue, but it's not my intention to worry anyone unduly. Here are a few things worth considering:

  • The new-car smell fades over time and so does the harmful effects, and the main leaching off of toxic fumes happens during the first 6 months. If you regularly update your car to the latest model you are also insuring that you maintain a high concentration of VOCs in your driving environment.
  • Not all people are sensitive to VOCs. Just because it doesn't give you headaches, or other noticeable effects, doesn't mean that it's not doing you any harm.
  • Since the VOCs are constantly being emitted from the materials in the car's cabin, opening a window, or allowing the air to circulate and be replaced from outside air on a regular basis will reduce the VOC levels. Try to do this often.
  • Durian fruit
    Durian fruit is infamous for its smell.
  • Heat tends to exacerbate the problem, by speeding the release of VOCs. If your car has been parked in the sun open the door and allow for air exchange to take place for a few minutes before entering the car.

Those who are driving around in older cars might feel better about themselves. That durian smell might be lingering since your last visit to the fresh fruit market, your kid might have just walked fresh dog poop into carpet two weeks ago, but this mix (though it might smell toxic) is preferable to your health than the new-car smell you might have been craving for before you read this article.

Finally I encourage anyone considering a new-car purchase to put this on their list of questions to be asked at the sales office.