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That “New Car Smell” Is Laced With Toxins


By James Donahue

February 2006


It has been a while since I smelled it, but people still investing in new cars know what we are talking about when we refer to that “new car smell.”


It is a unique smell that only people who purchase a new car and the friends that get to ride in it experience.


Now we learn that getting whiffs of that smell is very bad for us. Breathing that “smell” involves ingesting dust and particles of dangerous PBDEs used as fire retardants, and phthalates, used mostly to soften PVC plastics on the interior of those cars.


A report from the Ann Arbor Ecology Center calls for tougher regulations to phase out the use of these chemicals  and the voluntary compliance by auto manufacturers to stop using these products inside new vehicles.


The report also suggests that new car owners reduce the release and breakdown of these chemicals by using solar reflectors, ventilating car interiors, and parking in the shade whenever possible.


Jeff Gearhart, a co-author of the report, said: “We can no longer rely just on seatbelts and airbags to keep us safe in cars. Our research shows that autos are chemical reactors, releasing toxins before we even turn on the ignition.”


These chemicals are linked to birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, premature births and early puberty in laboratory animals. There also are other serious health problems suspected, the report said.


In the study, the group found that Volvo vehicles had the lowest levels of phthalates and the second-lowest levels of PBDEs. Volvo also has the toughest policies for phasing out these chemicals, the report said.


The automobile industry, however, claims that the use of PBDEs as a fire retardant chemical in car upholsteries, floor carpeting and plastic parts is an important safety factor in cars.


The Bromine Science and Environmental Forum said that PBDEs have been extensively studied in the US and Europe over a 10-year period and are found to be safe for continued use.


It is critical that autos have the best possible flame retardants available in case of accidents, the forum argues. “In 2004 alone, there were approximately 297,000 car fires in the United States, leading to 550 deaths. If effective flame retardants were not used, this number would certainly be higher,” the group said.


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