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New Ecology Center guide to toxic chemicals in cars helps consumers avoid a major source of indoor air pollution
The Ecology Center’s fourth consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars, released Feb. 15, found the Honda Civic at the top of this year’s list, and the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport at the bottom.
Researchers tested more than 200 of the most popular 2011- and 2012-model vehicles for chemicals that off-gas from parts such as the steering wheel, dashboard, armrests and seats, in the ratings posted at HealthyStuff.org. These chemicals contribute to “new car smell” and a variety of acute and long-term health concerns, according to Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center.
Since the average American spends more than 1.5 hours in a car every day, toxic chemical exposure inside vehicles can be a major source of indoor air pollution.
“Research shows that vehicle interiors contain a unique cocktail of hundreds of toxic chemicals that off-gas in small, confined spaces,” Gearhart said. “Since these chemicals are not regulated, consumers have no way of knowing the dangers they face. Our testing is intended to expose those dangers and encourage manufacturers to use safer alternatives.”
Chemicals of primary concern include: bromine (associated with brominated flame retardants, or BFRs); chlorine (indicating the presence of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC and plasticizers); lead; and heavy metals. Such chemicals have been linked to a wide range of health problems such as allergies, birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, and cancer.
Automobiles are particularly harsh environments for plastics, as extreme air temperatures of 192°F and dash temperatures up to 248°F can increase the concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and break other chemicals down into more toxic substances.
“Automobiles function as chemical reactors, creating one of the most hazardous environments we spend time in,” added Gearhart.
The good news is overall vehicle ratings are improving. The best vehicles today have eliminated hazardous flame retardants and PVC. Today, 17 percent of new vehicles have PVC-free interiors and 60 percent are produced without BFRs.
Top ranking cars in this year’s release are the Honda Civic, Toyota Prius and the Honda CR-Z. Worst ranking: Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Chrysler 200 SC and Kia Soul.
The Civic achieved its ranking by being free of bromine-based flame retardants in all interior components; utilizing PVC-free interior fabrics and interior trim; and having low levels of heavy metals and other metal allergens.
The Mitsubishi Outlander contained bromine and antimony-based flame retardants in the seating and center console; chromium treated leather on several components; and over 400 parts per million lead in seating materials.
"We're pleased to be recognized by HealthyStuff.org for our efforts,” according to Marcos Frommer, manager of corporate affairs and communications at American Honda. “Over the past decade, Honda has taken a number of steps to reduce or remove chemicals of concern from our vehicles. We voluntarily report these efforts in our annual North American Environmental Report."
Anyone looking to buy a new car can visit HealthyStuff.org and search by model, comparison shop between different models, and cross reference with fuel economy standards to find both a healthy and fuel-efficient vehicle. A widget and mobile phone application are also available.
“We’re also asking visitors to the site to contact car manufacturers and ask them to subscribe to voluntary third party eco labels, such as the TUV Toxproof and Öko-Tex Standard 100, and reduce their use of toxic chemicals in vehicles,” Gearhart said. “A number of leading automakers, including Ford and Volvo, have already adopted these standards for some of their vehicles.”
- Most improved automakers in terms of the average ratings for their vehicles are Volkswagen (+42 percent), Mitsubishi (+38 percent) and Ford (+30 percent). These represent improvement from the 2009/2010 models to the 2011/2012 models.
- Two automakers had overall declining average scores from 2009/2010 to 2011/2012: Diamler AG (-29 percent) and Volvo (-13 percent).
- On a fleet-wide basis PVC use is declining. No pre-2006 vehicles had PVC-free interiors, versus 17 percent (34) of the 2011/2012 vehicle models which had PVC-free interiors. Flexible PVC often contains hazardous plasticizers, or “softeners,” called phthalates, which off-gas during vehicle use and are deposited on dust particles and windshields, where they cause “fogging.” In recent years, automakers have begun replacing PVC with polyurethanes and polyolefins, which contain fewer harmful additives and are easier to recycle.
- Forty percent of vehicles tested in 2012 contained brominated flame retardants (BFRs) in the vehicle interiors. BFRs refer to a wide range of chemicals added to materials to both inhibit their ignition and slow their rate of combustion. Alternatives which provide the degree of fire safety required under law without using organic compounds of bromine are available, as well as options in product redesign.
Since 1997, scientists at the Ecology Center have performed more than 20,000 tests for toxic chemicals on 7,000 consumer products, including pet products, vehicles, women's handbags, back-to-school products, children's toys, building products, children's car seats and more. The presence of these chemicals is measured with an x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer, a proven accurate indicator of elements in products. These results can all be found at HealthyStuff.org.