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Is That New Car Smell Killing You?

The chemicals that create the new car smell have the potential of causing severe health problems.

new car smell

Everybody loves that new car smell. Not only is it pleasurable to the senses, it also serves as a symbol of pride: It states that you’re a new car owner. However, lurking beneath that satisfying scent are a group of harmful chemicals. These substances, if exposed to for extended periods of time, can cause serious health problems.

What exactly is the new car smell?

We all enjoy the new car smell, but where is it coming from? The answer is chemicals. A lot of chemicals.

There is a plethora of chemicals found in a car’s interior. A study done by the Ecology Center found that there are more than 200 toxic chemicals in vehicle interiors.

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Some of these chemicals are known as volatile organic compounds. These substances are in products used to make car parts. For instance, the VOC bromine is found in brominated flame retardants that are added to plastics to make them less flammable. Chlorine is used in polyvinyl chloride, which is in plastics, windshields, lead and heavy metals.

These car parts emit the toxic chemicals through a process known as off-gassing, in which vapors that were previously absorbed are released into the air. While some VOC’s are odorless, those that are not combine to create that “new car smell.”

What are the dangers of the new car smell?

According to the Environmental Protection Agency, the VOC’s found in car parts have been associated with a host of health issues, such as allergies, impaired learning, liver toxicity, birth defects and cancer.

Serious health issues, though, require prolonged exposure to these chemicals. And as we all know, the new car smell doesn’t last forever. While these chemicals themselves will remain in your car, the dangerous off-gassing process will reduce over time. Experts say most of it will be over within six months.

But the fact that these chemicals aren’t just in any enclosed space but in an enclosed space that has the ability of reaching very high temperatures is another problem. Heat increases the rate of off-gassing. The high temperatures in a car during warm months can therefore increase the concentration of VOC’s and break down other chemicals into more toxic substances.

new car smell

Looking ahead

The good news is that many manufacturers are beginning to reduce VOC levels in their cars. They are accomplishing this by using different materials, coatings and adhesives in manufacturing. According to the BBC, one such VOC that is being eliminated is the aforementioned polyvinyl chloride. In 2006, it was found in nearly every vehicle interior. By 2012, that number had dropped to 73% with manufacturers stating PVC would decline further. Honda, for one, claims that in 2019, 11 of the 15 Honda and Acura car and light truck models sold in the U.S. or Canada had PVC-free interiors.


Preventing adverse side effects

Since the new car smell isn’t going (completely) away any time soon, there are certain steps you can take to prevent any adverse health effects.

The best advice to avoid any harm from the new car smell is to limit your time spent inside your car, especially early on. Don’t go on long road trip. Don’t sit in your car if you need to kill time. When you are driving, keep your car well ventilated. Keep the windows open if possible.

Also remember that off-gassing gets worse when the car is hot. So always try to park in the shade, and consider using a solar shade and even rolling down your windows if you feel safe doing so.

For all things cars, including driver resources, vehicle buying, maintenance and repair and roadside assistance, visit AAA.com/Automotive

Comments
  • Jeanne N.

    This is helpful information so we know what to do to counter it as much as we can. We purchased our brand new car from the surplus at year end, so it had been sitting in the showroom / lot for many months before we used it. There was only a faint smell of “new car.”

    We do roll down the windows to air out the car when we first get in it, then we roll them up when we turn on the A/C or heat. We only turn on the heat to get off the chill and then we turn it off — same thing we do in our house to keep the bills down.

    In most locations it is not practical to keep your windows rolled down unless you have your own garage. Aside from a security issue, wildlife and even neighbors’ pets can get into your car, including birds and insects.

  • Barbara B.

    Twenty + years ago I bought a new car which so assaulted me with its chemical smells that I could not drive it for three months, even though I had the interior washed out with water and drove with the window open in the winter. It was six months before I could drive the car and breathe comfortably. People thought I was crazy. Reading this article, I feel vindicated. Thank you so much for this report.

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