New Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Cars Helps Consumers Avoid "New Car Smell" As Major Source of Indoor Air Pollution

Best Picks: Honda Civic, Toyota Prius, Honda CR-Z 

Worst Picks: Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Chrysler 200, Kia Soul

Honda Rated as Top Manufacturer; PVC Reduction Efforts Hailed

Ann Arbor, MI - The Ecology Center released its consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars at, finding the Honda Civic at the top of this year's list, and the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport at the bottom. Over 200 of the most popular 2011- and 2012-model vehicles were tested for chemicals that off-gas from parts such as the steering wheel, dashboard, armrests and seats. These chemicals contribute to "new car smell" and a variety of acute and long-term health concerns. 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," said Jeff Gearhart, Research Director at the Ecology Center. "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."

Nissan 2011 Ratings

Chemicals of primary concern include: bromine (associated with brominated flame retardants); 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 (VOC's) 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% of new vehicles have PVC-free interiors and 60% are produced without BFRs.


Top ranking cars in this year's release are: 1) Honda Civic 2) Toyota Prius and 3) Honda CR-Z. Worst ranking: 1) Mitsubishi Outlander Sport 2) Chrysler 200 SC and 3) 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 ppm lead in seating materials. The full list of top 10 best and worst cars is found below: 

Mitsubishi Rating

"We're pleased to be recognized by for our efforts. 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," stated Marcos Frommer, Manager of Corporate Affairs & Communications at American Honda.

Anyone looking to buy a new car can visit 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. Visitors to the site are encouraged to contact car manufacturers and ask them to subscribe to voluntary third party eco labels, such as the TUV Toxproof and Oko-Tex Standard 100, and reduce their use of toxic chemicals in vehicles. A number of leading automakers, including Ford (TUV) and Volvo (Oko Tex), have already adopted these standards for some of their vehicles.


Other Findings:

Most improved automakers in terms of the average ratings for their vehicles are VW (+42%), Mitsubishi (+38%) and Ford (+30%). These represent improvement from the 2009/2010 models to the 2011/2012 models.

Two automaker had overall declining average scores from 2009/2010 to 2011/2012: Daimler AG (-29%) and Volvo (-13%).


On a fleet-wide basis PVC use is declining. Zero percent of pre-2006 vehicles had PVC-free interiors, versus 17% (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.


40% of vehicle tested in 2012 contained Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) in the vehicle interiors. BFR's 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 exist, as well as options in product redesign.


Note: only tests for a limited set of chemical hazards. Vehicles may also contain other chemical hazards, including chlorinated flame retardants (CFR) which were NOT tested for in this study

Published on December 15, 2017

There are no published samples in this report.

IMPORTANT NOTE: ratings do not provide a measure of health risk or chemical exposure associated with any individual product, or any individual element or related chemical.