Dangers lurk behind that 'new-car smell'

Ecology Center report on auto toxics covered by media worldwide


Hundreds of media outlets around the world covered the Ecology Center’s fourth consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars, released earlier this month, most reporting on the dangers that lurk behind that "new-car smell."


A research team led by the Ecology Center's Jeff Gearhart 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 Gearhart.

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,” he 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.

The full list of top 10 best and worst cars can be found at http://healthystuff.org/pressimages/Best_Worst_2012_simple.jpg.

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.”

In addition, the Ecology Center is encouraging supporters to contact their senators to support the Safe Chemicals Act of 2011.  The bill is a long-overdue update of U.S. chemical policy that would improve everyday products by phasing out the most dangerous ones, requiring testing of new chemicals to make sure they are safe before reaching the market and requiring disclosure of chemical testing data.  To support the legislation, click on this link.

EcoLink — February 2012 Ecolink
An online publication of the Ecology Center

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