The wonderful and distinctive smell of a brand new car says so much about the euphoric honeymoon period of your new ride. In fact, it’s so desirable that fragrance companies produce sprays and air fresheners to keep it going for as long as possible. If you love that smell, we’re sorry to burst your bubble. In recent years scientists have been investigating if that intoxicating smell is actually harmful to your health.
How could that be? Before we dive into this question, if the new-car smell is truly harmful, let’s explore what causes it in the first place.
The Science Behind It
The new-car smell is made up of a group of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs for short. These VOCs can be found in adhesives, fabrics, plastics, and other bits that are used in the construction of a vehicle. Those items emit the smell through a process known as off-gassing – the escape and release of material that was previously absorbed or trapped in all those bits.
Unfortunately, the various VOCs found in new-car smell read like the induction list to the hazardous materials hall of shame; ethylbenzene, formaldehyde, and toluene. These VOCs are what you find in such products such as glue, nail polish remover, and paint. For some people, these chemicals can cause headaches, dizziness, allergic reactions, and even nausea. Prolonged exposure to VOCs can result in serious health effects, even cancer. But are there enough of this category of materials in the new-car smell to make exposure to them a definite health concern?
Research Is Inconclusive
While multiple studies confirm that the distinctive scent of a new automobile does indeed contain some of those dangerous chemicals, the science is not entirely clear on whether or not those materials could pose a real threat.
The most recent study was conducted in 2012 by the Ecology Center, a non-profit organization based in Ann Arbor, Mich. The group looked at vehicles from the 2006 to 2012 model years and measured the presence of various chemicals such as chlorine, lead, and other VOCs in the interiors.
“These chemicals [in new car smell] can be harmful when inhaled or ingested and may lead to severe health impacts such as birth defects, learning disabilities, and cancer,” the report stated. “Since the average American spends more than 1.5 hours in a car every day, toxic chemical exposure inside vehicles is becoming a major source of potential indoor air pollution.” The group advises that some cars have more of these toxins than others.
Before you swear off buying a new car forever, consider a 2007 study by the Technical University of Munich. Researchers collected air samples from the interiors of new and three-year old cars that were sitting under a set of lights to simulate a sunny parking lot. The collected samples were then exposed to human, hamster, and mouse cells to see if any toxic effects could be found. The test came up with nothing, leaving researchers without clear evidence the new-car smell is toxic. However, the study showed that the samples could exacerbate allergies.
Despite the lack of conclusive evidence, automakers are putting more effort into using adhesives and materials with fewer VOCs. For example, the Ecology Center showed that a VOC known as polyvinyl chloride was used in almost all new car interiors in 2006. Yet, by 2012, the percentage of vehicles using polyvinyl chloride was reduced to 73 percent of vehicles –a good start in reducing health risks.
At the same, automakers have been increasing use of entirely natural soy-based materials, while installing better ventilation and filtration systems to speed up the off-gassing process.
While the auto industry makes the necessary changes over time, the best step you can take to reduce risks for you and your family – besides not buying a new car at all –is to keep the interior well ventilated during the first few months of ownership. Also, keep your interior clean and reduce dust, which is known to hold on to VOCs, by running a rag over interior surfaces. In addition, park your vehicle in the shade (rather than the hot glaring sun) and roll down the windows when possible. The added ventilation more quickly clear the air from the off-gassing creating the new-car smell.