January 27, 2012

New car smell: good, bad or ugly?

Ah, the smell of a new car! It is the smell of success, an inextricable part of America's love affair with the automobile, the scent of a three-ton version of Proust's madeleine. But as we're finding out about the chemical origins and the biological consequences of that new-car smell, many of us are moving from "How do I preserve it?" to "How do I get away from it?"

Not much is being said or written about the dangers of toxins in car interiors, but it will come, as increasingly the chemicals used in the manufacture of car interiors are implicated in a wide spectrum of health problems, ranging from eye irritation to endocrine disruption and cancer.

Some of us are already in the process of de-toxing our homes, our food, our personal care products. So in a way, the car is the obvious next step. And I am sorry to bring bad tidings, but it's a nightmare in there.

If you haven't heard this news before, at this point I advise you to get a nice cup of tea, a glass of green juice, a stiff drink, a very deep breath, or whatever you lean on to steady your nerves, because the news is, frankly, unnerving. But if you read through the bad news, I promise a list of measures with which to fight the toxic onslaught.

I suppose it is, in principle, possible to ask a carpenter to fashion you a dashboard for your car out of maple wood, with a walnut oil finish. You could use untreated wool felt for the skirt around your shift stick. You could have the seats stuffed with organic cotton like the stuffing of your futons, and you could upholster them with low-impact leather. You would have to sign a thousand waivers promising not to sue anyone if any of that stuff catches fire. But your car would be chemically safe. And it would cost more than your house.


Toxins in your tin can

Mass-produced cars of the 21st century are affordable (and smell of new car) because most of their interior is made of plastic. Unfortunately, most of that plastic off-gas phthalates, a plastic softener that has been linked to birth defects and hormonal disturbances. The upholstery is treated with flame retardants, usually some polybrominated diphenyl ether (PBDE), known to cause problems in brain development and possibly liver poisoning. For good measure, there is also an alphabet soup of heavy metals and halogens in the brew.

A good primer on these man-made toxins that have become endemic in our environment is What's gotten into us?: Staying healthy in a toxic world by McKay Jenkins. And The Non-Toxic Avenger: what you don't know can hurt you by Deanna Duke is a courageous personal account of one family's examining the consequences of exposure to the toxins we encounter in modern life - and fighting back. Also, there is a study of the environmental safety of car interiors by the Ecology Center, Toxic At Any Speed (2006).

In its daily doings, your car collects all sorts of garbage, and I'm not talking about the wrappers of granola bars our children leave on the back seat. Brake pads used to be made of asbestos, a miracle material from a previous age. Those are phased out and replaced by newer materials, as yet unproven for health safety. All wear out, so you're leaving a trail of brake pad particles wherever you go. Unavoidably, some of those make it into the car, together with the other toxins. Flame retardants are now apparently endemic in our soil, which gets trailed in on our shoes (and other items of clothing, depending on how much of mud-bunnies your children are).

"L'enfer, c'est les autres", said Sartre: Hell is other people, and nowhere is that more true than on the road. I mutter it every time I get stuck in traffic. But more than that: while you are, by definition, ahead of your own exhaust plume, you can't avoid being in the exhaust of the car(s) in front of you. If that happens to be a diesel powered truck (those are still at large without soot filters or scrubbers), you're treated to a cocktail of soot particles, toluene, benzene, and a bunch of other volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that you were so careful to avoid when choosing your interior house paints.

But wait, you don't actually need other people to give you a lungful of crud: you can make it yourself, right in the comfort of your own car. For air conditioning is no longer a luxury but a standard fixture in cars. Of course, conditioned air tends to be dryer than the outside air, which is 90% of what makes it so pleasant. But once you turn it off, now you have a cold manifold which gets filled with nice humid air; the moisture from that air condenses on the pipes, and before you can say "humungous fungus" you have a mold problem on your hands. There is a reason molds and mildews smell bad: they off-gas waste product, what CelloPlayer with the usual lack of delicacy (but rather accurately) would call mold fart. Some strains of molds give mold fart that are neurotoxins. And this is what gets blown into your face the next time you start the car and its AC.

As your car gets older, its parts get worn, meaning they start to fall apart. The foam in the seats starts to disintegrate, the leather gets scratched, fabric upholstery has been losing lint throughout its lifetime. All those bits of dust and lint starts to float around inside your car, and all are laced with toxins.


What to do about it.

If you're starting to feel faint, take heart. Knowing about the problem is a huge part of the solution. We can start putting pressure on the relevant government agencies to start implementing some consumer protection policies, but we don't have time to wait for that to take effect. We need to act now for the safety of our selves and our families. Here are a few things we can do:

Stay out of the car.
I know: not all of us have the luxury of going totally car-free. I don't: just think of the endless groceries - oh yes, and the cello. But we can make a conscious decision to walk or bike whenever we can, and we can plan our trips to minimise the time we spend in the car. It's better for our health, better for our wallets, better for the global climate.

Choose your car with care.
Buying a used car is a great way to avoid the off-gassing that new cars do, up to two years after they come off the assembly line. When shopping for a new car, include chemical safety in your list of things to check. There is unfortunately not yet much detailed data; I know only of two studies that check for contaminants: the 2006 study by the Ecology Center, Toxic At Any Speed, which covers PDBEs and phthalates, and healthystuff.org's ratings for contaminants such as cadmium, lead, arsenic, mercury, chlorine and bromine.

My sense is that leather, once installed, is less toxic than fabric upholstery in the long run, but that's only because most of the very toxic chemicals required for its production stays at the tannery (and its effluent). If you can live with that idea, and if you can afford the price difference, leather may be a better option than cloth impregnated with flame retardants.

While you're pretty much on your own, your nose is a pretty good indicator of toxin trouble: learn to use it. When in doubt, beg or bribe a chemically sensitive friend to sniff out the car of your choice, keeping in mind that this might be hardship on them. I didn't marry CelloDad for his nose, but it has transpired that he is one of those few people who can sniff out bad stuff like mold fart of which I am blissfully but stupidly unaware. He's my canary in a coalmine, and I bring him whenever I suspect there are chemical minefields to be negotiated; like in a furniture store. (Sorry, CelloDad's nose is not for rent).

Fresh air is your friend.

In the acronym VOC, V is for volatile, meaning that at normal temperatures these toxic organic compounds tend to be gases. So when given a chance, they will leave the plastics in which they are embedded, and the higher the temperature, the faster they off-gas.

Air your new car long and often. Unless there is rain in the forecast, park it, in the shade, with its windows open by an inch or so, to allow the off-gassing VOCs to escape. Open all the doors for a few minutes before you get in. Drive with the windows open a little (do what you can to avoid getting stuck behind a Mack truck or inside the Holland Tunnel into Manhattan at rush hour).

Forego the airco.
Treat air conditioning as the luxury it is: reserve it for when your 80-year old grandma visits from Montana and she is visibly gasping for breath in the Houston humid heat. The bad old fluorocarbon-based refrigerants have been banned, but their replacements are to my mind as yet unproven; and they invariably leak out after a while. Air conditioning does a number on your fuel efficiency anyway, and for short distances the violent temperature swings are really hard on your body. And there's that mold fart to think of.

Doggedly go after the dust.
Dust inside your car is likely contaminated with all sorts of toxins, including those ubiquitous flame retardants. Avoid eating in the car, since you tend to ingest the dust together with the food. Vacuum clean your car often, using a cleaner with a HEPA filter so you're not blowing it around and breathing it. A HEPA-filtered vacuum cleaner is a must for the house, anyway.

Minimize carpeting, which harbours and contributes to dust. If you must shake out your floor mats, be sure to be upwind from the cloud that comes out. Consider replacing those carpet-like floor mats with real (not fake, plastic) rubber mats, that you can take out and hose down periodically.

A mild soapy solution will clean most surfaces, like the dashboard and the inside of the windows. You can brighten it with a squeeze of lemon juice, or a few drops of essential oil; peppermint or thyme are my favourites. This is a lot cheaper than a lot of specialised car cleaning fluids, and safer.

In Japan, which could be said to be the cleanest nation on earth, taxis are bastions of near-aseptic cleanliness. You never have to touch anything: the driver opens and closes the back door for you, like in a school bus. The entire back seat is covered with a white cloth that follows the contours of the seat, sometimes embellished with embroidery, and invariably looking as if a freshly laundered and starched one has just been spread out for your individual benefit. You're almost afraid to soil it by placing your jet-lagged bottom on it. I want one of those for my back seat. And corresponding ones for the front seats, for that matter. Just so I can take them off and put them in the laundry periodically, that would go a long way towards keeping dust in the car under control.

Complete control.
As those with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) know, you need to be vigilant about your environment. If you give your car to someone for cleaning or detailing, make sure you know what they use, because it's you who has to live in that car afterwards. Skip the air "fresheners": they are just perfumes designed to mask any bad odours - and in many perfumes the carrier solvent is toxic. A good cleaner should be willing to use cleaning products provided by you: after all, it's your car.

Good luck. As I said, we're pretty much on our own on this one right now. But knowledge is power, and knowing about the problem, as unwelcome as the news might be, is half the solution. If you know of anything else that helps in the fight for clean car interiors, please share it.


Note added 28FEB2012:
A bill for an improved Safe Chemicals Act (S.847, introduced April 2011) is still in Congress. The Environmental Working Group has a good summary of the issues, as well as an opportunity to sign their petition to pass this act. You can track the (glacial) progress of the bill at opencongress.org.

Note added SEP2012:
New car smell made visible: an experiment that turned out way more successful than I would like - "What six weeks of new car smell looks like".



You may also like:
1. A Non-Toxic Cleaning for your Car Interior
2. So you want a seven-seat car that does better than 30 mpg
3. Cars for People with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity - and Everybody Else
4. October is Breast Cancer Awareness Month



  1. It's odd I never really thought of that "new car" smell as being toxic but I do know new carpet and fabrics are toxic indeed so this makes a lot of sense. Thanks for pointing it out!
    Stopping by from the Meet and Greet and really great to get to know you!

  2. Hey from the meet and greet. I have a personal aversion to those dangly car air fresheners and WHY do companies have to put them in as a freebie when they've cleaned your car??!! I remember ripping one out of a friend's car once who was having problems conceiving; I don't know if they fact she was pregnant within 2 months of that incident had anything to do with it LOL! But seriously, thanks for sharing such important information with us all; I appreciate it for sure.

  3. Wow ... this is one aspect of green living that I truly never considered. But it makes so much sense ... and I certainly will be thinking about it from now on. I should have guessed, though ... there was a time when I would take my car to a car wash. When they were done washing and vacuuming ... they would spray something onto the seats and carpets. When I'd get into the car, I'd notice the smell and then ... get a headache. I stopped going to the car wash and instead chose one of those do-it-yourself places. I think that you're right ... staying out of cars is probably the very best action. Thanks for a great article ... and for linking up at the Meet & Greet!

  4. Welcome meet&greeters! And many thanks to Small Footprints for hosting the Meet&Greet.

    I'm actually still reeling from this post myself; I set out to write something about car seats, you know, cloth vs. leather, that sort of thing -- I didn't at all expect to end up chewing on the material on sites like TEDX (http://www.endocrinedisruption.com/home.php) and finding people like Beth Terry (http://myplasticfreelife.com/) who are going plastic-free. Whoa!

    Trust your noses, trust your bodies: they know, and they will tell us if we learn to listen.

  5. I knew that the new car smell wasn't good for us, but I didn't know that there was so much else going on inside my car. Thankfully, I don't need to drive often, and my car is so old at this point that off-gassing should not be a problem. (Fuel efficiency, different story.) I think it may be time for me to start reconsidering a bike.

  6. Great info, but so depressing! I need to go and find a non-toxic wooden bubble to love in...sigh. :) :)

    1. Sounds good, G4! A nice Scandinavian-type sauna comes to mind, to be shared with your favourite person....
      (I do know what you mean, but I LOVE that typo!).

      I say, push back! We are the buyers, and we should have a say on what we buy. If enough of us tell the makers of cars that we are not happy with what they throw into their product, the tide will turn, eventually. Just look at the smaller cars with better fuel efficiency that are coming onto the US market recently. Just the corporations responding to demand. Let's use that.

    2. LOL!!! Eventually change will happen, we just have to demand it!

  7. I never thought of the new car smell of being dangerous! I have always bought used cars, but still make sure there is a hint of that "new car" smell left behind. I'm not sure I could leave the AC for occasions since I live in HOT florida, but the other ones seem doable! Great information.

  8. as a chemically sensitive person cars are a big problem. Some car manufacturers actually spray the new cars with a perfume called new car smell which makes it twice as bad and harder to out gas. Make sure that they don't do that. I personally have not had good luck with buying used cars because the previous owners either used air freshner or they smoked in the car or they wore perfume products in the car and all of the smells get into the seats and into the a.c. vents and never air out, not to mention mold if they ever spilled any liquids, its to risky and it never works. What I found I have to do is buy a new car and keep my old car while they new car airs out for about a year until it is safe to drive. You can also buy a car filter that plugs into your car and run it when you drive. Audi's are very clean cars which don't use toxic materials and they hardly have any new car smell. Also many jeeps are good because they don't have carpet. I currently have an FJ Cruiser, it has no carpet, I bought it new and it aired out very quickly, I was fine in it within a few months. I am currently in the market for a new car and I need a truck so it will air while I drive the FJ. If you have carpet be careful that you don't ever spill any liquids in it or it will mildew unless you can dry it completely (which includes the underneath part.)

    1. Wow. Thanks so much for sharing your experiences, and for giving a glimpse of how tricky it is to deal with chemical sensitivity.

      It makes sense that utilitarian vehicles like jeeps and working trucks have very little carpeting which is hard to clean. The carpet's synthetic (=plastic) fibers have a very high surface-to-volume ratio which makes it especially problematic.

      It's good to know that you have several options, I wish there were more! While a "clean" car is a must for a chemically sensitive person like you, all of us would benefit from a reduced exposure to toxins.

    2. Thanks again for your comment! it has inspired me to go sniff out (so to speak) the FJ Cruiser and a few other cars, and look into the issue a bit more. Report in this post: http://bit.ly/K5jWwu

  9. Basically the fault here will lie on the production and substance the companies of car air fresheners. Obviously, they put to much time on creating something special and visually attractive but, they forgot to create a further study on the good and bad effects of their products.

  10. Most kids have problems with new car smell: it's somewhat toxic, it spreads fast in my stomach! I'm still in the process of looking for a good car perfume that won't put me in headache even in a pre-owned car.

  11. Yeah, I’m not also comfortable with the smell of the car especially if it’s newly purchased; that’s why right after we bought our car, we headed straight to a shop where they sell air fresheners to at least get rid of that smell. I may have to suggest to car dealers that they should lessen toxic materials to the car so that it wouldn’t harm the children.

  12. I’m planning to change the set up of my car, and yes I do really need some tips on how to get rid of the car’s smell. I just hope my kids will feel better the next time they ride in our newly remodeled car.


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