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.
Toxins in your tin can
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).
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:
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.
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.
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".
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