May 27, 2012

Cars for People with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity - and Everybody Else.

You don't have to be chemically sensitive to want to find out about problematic chemical compounds. If you are pregnant, if you are a parent of young children, if you are in a hormonal transition like adolescence or menopause, and indeed if you are not into having your finely balanced endocrine system messed up, you may be interested in learning about the chemicals that have been shown to be endocrine disruptors. This is a term that encompasses problems in such areas as hormonal regulation, fertility, and growth - including cancer. These chemicals are also implicated in a range of other modern health problems.

They are everywhere: in the stuffing and upholstery of our comfy couch, in the paint of our walls, in synthetic fertilisers and weedkillers, in the synthetic carpeting common in our office workplaces - and in our cars: all the places where we spend a lot of time, even if we don't work in hazardous sectors like the petrochemical industry or in conventional agriculture.

Lots of families are already aware of toxic chemicals in the home, and are working to eliminate or at least reduce them. I think we should start including our cars, which we tend to treat as extensions of our living rooms: we spend increasing amounts of time in them.

Many new parents rightly worry about the chemical safety of car seats for young children: But sometimes I get the feeling that these same parents who are so conscientiously looking out for the well-being of their children have overlooked the more general hazard of their car interiors. Worse, very often the arrival of a baby is the direct cause of a family's purchase of a new car.

Most new cars have "new car smell", a characteristic so desirable that many new car owners want to hold on to that smell for as long as possible. In fact, dealers spray on a perfume carrying that smell as the cars arrive on their lot.

The "new car smell" is actually a warning sign.

It's a sign that the synthetic materials of which the car interior is built is releasing gases, many of which are toxic. Immediate responses include headaches, nausea and blurry vision. Long-term effects are more insidious and more worrisome, and include endocrine disruption and cancer.

An acquaintance recently countered that these gases are "alleged" to be toxic. But I think we're now past allegation: the research into the toxicology of these compounds has been published in peer-reviewed scientific journals, some quite prestigious. To a scientist like me, the list of toxic compounds compiled by The Endocrine Disruption Exchange (TEDX) is very convincing, as it is supported by a list of publications; you can go to the source if you are so inclined.

Those with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS) don't need scientific studies to tell them that organic solvents, flame retardants and plastic softeners are not meant for human consumption. These compounds make them terribly, terribly sick, and even a small exposure can have debilitating effects.

For MCS sufferers, transportation can be a baffling conundrum because so many of our cars are laden with toxins, and public transportation has its own unpredictable hazards. They have no choice but to go through a lengthy procedure to make sure their cars are chemically clean. One person living with MCS said in a comment on this blog that they end up having to buy a new car two years before they actually plan to use it, to give it time to outgas the toxins; for various reasons, used cars didn't work out well for this person.

I can only hope that not all MCS sufferers bear that heavy a burden. For the rest of us, we may not have an immediate reaction to automotive toxins, but it does affect our human physiology, even if we don't see the effects until much later.

The trouble is, it turns out to be very, very difficult to find a "clean" car, since using synthetic materials (i.e. plastics) is the cheapest route to finishing a car interior.

On his blog, Thriving with Multiple Chemical Sensitivity, Zen Master Sam offers excellent pointers on how to find a car that works for you. It sounds like a long-drawn out process full of potential pitfalls, from identifying a car that might be a match to your particular sensitivity, to convincing the dealer to keep the detailing they do as part of the "dealer prep" as clean of toxins as possible.

To get a sense of the process (or should I say, ordeal) I went on a foray to the Toyota dealer, since Toyota offers a large range of vehicles. I had carefully chosen a warm and sunny day, which encourages the outgassing. The salesman I talked to was very nice about it, and showed me a Prius straight off the boat, before they had even sprayed it with extra new car smell.

It smelled strongly of new car. I closed the door without getting in.

Then we went to sit in a Tacoma: I did much better in that, partly because the dealer had chosen to show me one that was sparsely furnished. Finally we tried an FJ Cruiser that was also baking in the sun: of the three, it had the lowest level of outgassing as detected by my unscientific nose.

This makes sense: of the three cars, the Prius had the plushest upholstery, carpeting on the floors and sidewalls, etc. On the FJ Cruiser, there was a lot of metal visible on the interior, and the floor had rubber mats.

The less upholstery the better.
My take on this experiment is that the more utilitarian the vehicle, the fewer toxins you will encounter inside. Our cars are generally comfortable dens, bubble-wrap lined boxes on wheels (and that's before the air bags are even deployed). All that coddling is achieved by installing plastic components such are carpeting and plush upholstery. But try a more Spartan vehicle, one that is meant to get used for all sorts of jobs, including the ones for which you want to hose down the inside of the vehicle afterward: in such a vehicle you will encounter very little carpeting and plush stuff, because hard surfaces are easier to clean.

But why take the word of one person's un-scientific nose?

A much more scientific "nose" is a portable X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) spectrometer. The one used by the Ecology Center can detect elements to parts per million; in February 2012, they published a toxin study of new cars. You can find the summary and the full report at Healthy Stuff. XRF spectrometry was used to detect levels of chlorine (indicative of the presense of PVC), bromine (indicating brominated flame retardants), lead, and a number of other elements.

This study is very thorough, covering hundreds of cars, and taking its samples from many places inside each car. They assign weights to each contaminant to arrive at one number that rates how clean (or not) a vehicle is, ranging - for the most recent models - from the cleanest (0.46 in a 2012 Honda Civic) to the highest level of toxins (3.17 for a 2011 Chrysler 200 SC and a 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander)

According to the Ecology Center study, the Toyota cars in which I did the sniffing scored as follows:
     0.55     2011 Prius
     2.55     2009 Tacoma
     0.90     2008 Tacoma
     2.84     2009 FJ Cruiser

These results are the opposite from what I expected from my morning at the Toyota dealer. My un-scientific nose would have assigned the lowest car-smell score to the FJ Cruiser, and the highest to the Prius.

Maybe my nose was just wrong. CelloDad has a much better nose for these things, but I was unable to beg or bribe him into lending me his nose for this project, because he intensely detests new car smell.

However, the discrepancy also may have to do with the nature of X-ray Fluorescence spectroscopy: in XRF, you excite the material by shining high-energy X-rays on it. Each element in the material responds by emitting (fluorescing) lower-energy X-rays with a spectrum which is characteristic of that element. The total spectrum detected looks like a terrible mess, but you then feed it into software that teases out the spectral fingerprints of the various elements; if done properly you can figure out how much of each element is in the material you're looking at. But even though it is a beautiful technique, XRF does have its limits.

Two caveats should be attached to the results published on the Healthy Stuff site: Firstly, the Ecology Center study was done on brand-new cars that they presumably returned, in sellable condition, to the dealer after they were done with the study. For this reason, the study was non-destructive: they held the detector to various surfaces in the car and measure what X-rays come out in response to the excitation. But XRF spectrometry is mostly a surface measurement. Under the right circumstances, you can "see" a few millimeters into your material, but for many elements you can detect their presence only in the first few micrometers (for reference, a human hair is about 50 micrometers in diameter). To do XRF in a lab, you need to grind your sample into a fine powder. You can't very well do that to a new car that a dealer needs to sell. You can't even cut open the seats to take an assay of the innards. But gases emanating from the foam inside the seats, and the glue in the cardboard behind the side surfaces, do make their way out by diffusion, and a nose (even my relatively insensitive nose) is very good at detecting even small amounts of those gases.

The second issue with XRF is that it is more sensitive to heavy elements than to light ones. It has no problem with lead or cobalt, and can detect the bromine in PBDE flame retardants and even the chlorine in PVC. However, phthalates, which are used to soften plastics and are commonly found in carpeting, are made up of strings and rings of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen, all of which are too light show up in XRF. Perhaps it is these very additives that I smelled so overwhelmingly in the Prius, which had carpeting on the floors and sidewalls, whereas the FJ Cruiser had rubber matting on the floor and much more Spartan sidewalls.

So while the Ecology Center study is a great place to start, let us keep in mind that the XRF method it used does not detect all the toxins swirling inside a car. I hope that they will eventually do an analysis that goes deeper than the surfaces of the car interiors, and that they will supplement the XRF results with data from a method that can detect the phthalates and other light-element compounds.

Meanwhile, we can supplement their very large dataset with the detector we always have on board: our noses.



  1. It's time for Congress to mandate the EPA to enforce reductions of VOCs in ALL interior air to which humans are given exposure of over 15 minutes per day.

    1. Agree! You do realise that such a move would make a lot of things more expensive. However, plastics and other VOC emitters are only apparently cheap, while they carry huge hidden costs in terms of human and planetary health.

  2. Hi,
    I read the Ecology Center report a while back and went to test the Prius because it scored so well. I, like you, found that it had an extremely strong smell. I also noticed it made me feel very bad, worse even than most cars. So even though it had rated low for many chemicals, there is something else going on that is not being detected. It might be that there are some chemicals that their XRF spectrometer is not detecting that I am sensitive too.

    It is possible the smell and my reaction were caused by cleaners they used to prep the Prius, however, I sat in other Toyotas and I was not affected as much in them. It is my understanding that the Prius is made solely in Japan and maybe they are using different chemicals there than in the USA.

    What I learned from my experience is that I can't depend on reports but I must check the cars myself.

    And thank you for your report!

    Anonymous111 :)

    1. Thanks for sharing your experience. My own guess is that the Prius' smell comes from the carpet-like surfaces of the interior; the smell is very similar to that of new synthetic carpets, like the ones that contribute to sick building syndrome. The plastic softeners used for carpet fibers don't show up on XRF tests. Luckily, we still have our noses.

  3. Are there any cars or little trucks that can be bought 'stripped down', with no upholstery?

    1. Many car manufacturers let you specify what goes into the interior of your car. However: you have to wait (typically a few months) for them to manufacture the car to your specs; it must conform to safety requirements; and you have to convince your dealer, who would *much* rather sell you a car off their lot.

      It's also good to keep in mind that without any upholstery on the ceiling and doors, the ride will be very loud. And you probably can't do without the dashboard, much of which is often made of soft plastic.

  4. But the pain in my chest would prevent me from even staying in the car..or being very, very ill for days..probably losing consciousness, even with oxygen and a mask... for only a short time in the car. These chemicals are very, very dangerous.

  5. Has anyone thought about that also a car being digital. could cause more issues, because if digital is computeriised ,wouldn't that cause EMF exposure? I have a feeling that sensitivities to chemicals goes hand in hand with EMF, (Electrical Magnetic Frequency). Maybe the cars where you have to roll your windows up, with nothing digital, could help some. Or, back to Little House on the Prairie times
    .. Don't buy Hondas; there's a strange familiar smell coming through the vents.

    1. Our lives are such that most of us are immersed in EMF radiation: from our cellphones to RFID gates in stores to wireless devices in our homes and offices. The wiring in a car is generally shielded, so very little EMF escapes from the electronic components.

  6. Thank you so much for this excellent article. I never knew there was a chance of ordering a new car with less upholstery, for one thing. And I was relieved to read that you found the Prius very toxic smelling, like I do. My housemate has one that she bought new several years ago and it still stinks, even though she leaves the windows partly open all the time. I’d worried that if the Prius smells that bad even though it’s rated as less toxic, I wouldn’t have a chance of finding a more tolerable car.

    I’ve had MCS for over thirty years and am driving a 25 year old car whose interior is deteriorating badly. I dread getting another car, but I suspect that my old faithful has become just as toxic to me as a new car (or a used one contaminated by previous owners’ toxic products).

    I would love to know if you have any more current information or stories to pass along about specific newer car models. (I’m considering Toyota Camry or Honda Civic or Accord.) And best of luck to you with your car experiences, cello passenger and all.

    1. I'm sorry, I don't have information on specific current models, as very little information is available, and so much depends on the upholstery you choose for the car. I'm afraid we're dependent mostly on our own noses. You can ask the dealer if they will let you simply sit in a car with the kind of upholstery you want, for an afternoon - this is a risk you take but if the car doesn't agree with you, at least you will find out before you buy it!


    I got a used car and now I can't get near it with having MCS .

    The car dealer owner took my info and has not called me back ,

    I don’t think they will ever call back and will treat me like I have the Bubonic plague.

    I have a few family members that will clean the Mini Van for me. I would like to know how you do it .

    It has been sprayed with something like maybe Febreze and they used an ozone machine on it,

    They must be covering up a bad smoke smell ,

    God knows what else they did to the interior . I was thinking that an water extractor machine would help ?

    Anyone know the best way for me to have someone clean out all the interior ? Cythia

    1. I'm so sorry to hear of your ordeal!
      You might want to find a detailer who is open-minded about non-toxic interior detailing: they may have a solution. Dealers commonly spray an "air freshener" (yuck) as part of the dealer prep.

      Good luck. Detailling is not too expensive so worth a try. But if it doesn't work - I know you've just bought the car, but stay open to the possibility that exchanging it for a cleaner one may be worth the money and hassle.

  8. Use a carbon blanket to suck up the offgassing, it worked for me. They are not cheap but well worth it. Also spent several weeks with windows partially open daily, under carport. Never allow febreeze to be sprayed in your car EVER....

  9. I react to the carpet shampoo they use at all the detail places. I paid to have two shampooed cars re-detailed using multiple re-applications with a vacume which like zero rez was one tank clean water and one side dirty water. This just reactivates the shampoo and makes the smell worse. My local Toyota dealer offered to ozone the car I bought which it turned out I can't be in, for free but I m not holding my breath.

  10. I bought a brand new Kia Soul 2022
    6 months later and the smell makes me sick. I have less than 4000 miles on it. I passed out driving. I can't breathe. I can't use the air. My lips tingle and my mouth tastes like metal every time I'm in the cat. Once I'm out. Those symptoms go away. Our garage smells so bad and the people above it can smell it. I am afraid to drive long distances in fear I will pass out again. What am I supposed to do? It's brand new. My car is dangerous to my health to be in.


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