What’s in That New Car Smell?

new car smell

Story at-a-glance -

  • A new car smell is so intoxicating, manufacturers have attempted to recreate the fragrance for car air fresheners and deodorizers
  • Although popular, the scent is created by off-gassing volatile organic compounds associated with hormone disruption, liver and kidney damage, respiratory conditions and cancer
  • Researchers also found flame-retardant chemicals, formaldehyde, chlorine and heavy metal in air tested in new cars; concentrations dissipated considerably after six months of use
  • You may reduce your exposure to these chemicals by parking in the shade, opening windows, airing the car out before entering and not sitting in a parked car

By Dr. Mercola

Let’s face it, many people love that new car smell. In fact, it is so intoxicating air fresheners for cars are designed to mimic the scent. Scientists aren’t sure why this particular scent holds so much appeal, but it is likely a form of classical conditioning, since the smell is associated with the luxury of owning a new car. Scent is a powerful marketing tool as it commonly evokes feelings and emotions on which sales people are adept at capitalizing.

Memories associated with certain scents is called “odor-evoked autobiographical memory” or the Proust phenomenon, named after French writer Marcel Proust. Researchers have discovered your brain analyzes odors and memories in a similar region, closely connected to your amygdala and hippocampus. This connection may explain why scent is tied to vivid memories.

Scents may not only bring up good memories but may also be associated with traumatic memories, triggering trauma-related flashbacks. The power of scent reveals why aromatherapy is so effective in generating calmness and relaxation. However, while the scent of a new car may generate good feelings related to the ownership of a new luxury toy, the scent carries significant health risks and car manufacturers do not purposely include it in new cars.

Off-Gassing Unregulated VOCs Create Some of the Scent in Your Car

Tests were done on 200 of the most popular cars in 2011 to 2012, checking for chemicals off-gassing from steering wheels, armrests, carpet and dashboards that contribute to the new car smell.1 The researchers were interested in measurements, as the average American spends 1.5 hours each day in their car, and off-gassing chemicals are a significant contributor to indoor air pollution.

The truth is, that new car smell is made up of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). Robert Weiz, certified microbial investigator and founder of RTK Environmental Group,2 says the materials used to make the interior of a new car contain plastics, glue and carpeting, all of which outgas or release VOC molecules.

Although these molecules eventually evaporate, contributing to outdoor air pollution, in a confined space they are immediately harmful to inhale. Some individuals experience abrupt symptoms such as headaches and respiratory problems.3 This class of chemicals is present in cleaning products, home improvement products and building materials. The materials in new cars are unstable and give off gases, including benzene and formaldehyde, both of which are known carcinogens.

The U.S. does not have standards to protect citizens against VOCs, but other countries do. New car interiors can contain up to 128 times the legal limit of VOCs in countries like Australia.4 This raises a significant concern as you are exposed to VOC molecules in multiple areas of your life, compounding the effect they have on your health.

For instance, formaldehyde, or formaldehyde-releasing products, can be found under a number of different names on product labels,5  including in lotions, shampoos, cosmetics and even toothpaste. Product labels will rarely if ever contain the word formaldehyde, but rather a synonym for a formaldehyde-releasing chemical. Some of these names include formalin, methanal, quaternium-15, methylene oxide and formic aldehyde.6

VOCs Have a Disastrous Effect on Your Health

Organic compounds contain carbon and are found in all living things. However, VOCs easily become vapors or gases and contain elements such as fluorine, bromine, sulfur or nitrogen.7 VOCs are released from burning fuel, emitted from diesel exhaust and released from solvents, paints and glues. When VOC molecules combine with nitrogen oxides they react to form ozone, or smog, significantly affecting your respiratory system.

Health effects related to VOCs are dependent upon the concentration of the chemicals in the air and the length of your exposure. People have different symptoms depending upon their age, gender, health conditions and exposure to other chemicals. Short-term exposure can trigger:8

Headaches

Dizziness

Drowsiness

Lightheadedness

Allergic skin reactions

Shortness of breath

Conjunctival irritation

Vomiting

Fatigue

Aggravated asthma symptoms

Decline in serum cholinesterase levels

Nose and throat discomfort

While these symptoms often go away after exposure stops, long-term exposure has caused cancer and negatively affected the liver, kidney and nervous system.9 Benzene, formaldehyde and acetaldehyde are commonly emitted from household products and found in outgassing from your new car. Each of these chemicals are linked to cancer in animals and humans.10

Flame Retardants, Heavy Metals and Chlorine Also Found in New Car Smell

The Ecology Center team, led by Jeff Gearhart, found the chemicals of immediate concern were bromine, chlorine, lead and heavy metals.11 While these chemicals were of primary concern to the researchers, they found over 275 different chemicals in the interior of the cars tested. Gearhart commented:12

“Research shows that vehicle interiors contain a unique cocktail of hundreds of toxic chemicals that off-gas in small, confined spaces. 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.”

Bromine is often found in brominated flame-retardant chemicals, linked with an increased risk of breast cancer in female firefighters who are exposed to toxic smoke on the job. Flame retardants belong to the same class of chemical as DDTs or PCBs (organohalogens), which react with other chemicals to create cancer-causing dioxins,13 and are widely used in furniture, carpeting and your car.14

Researchers have also found associations between exposure to flame-retardant chemicals, such as bromine, and neurodevelopmental delays in children when exposed in utero and after birth,15 making your car a potential hazard for cognitive delay and poor attention.

Chlorine, another of the chemicals detected in significant levels in new car smell, is among the 10 highest volume chemicals made in the U.S.16 Although a gas at room temperature, chlorine is used to disinfect water, in the production of paper and cloth, and in polymers, rubbers and pesticides.

When chlorine enters your body through inhalation or by exposure through your skin, it reacts with water, producing corrosive acids and detergent byproducts that damage cells on contact.17 Chlorine is toxic enough to be classified as a chemical weapon, and has been associated with dementia in the elderly, increasing asthma episodes and eye and skin irritation.18

Lead exposure carries yet another list of side effects and negative health consequences you wouldn’t expect while riding to work or the grocery store. Lead poisoning is cumulative. In other words, your body doesn’t metabolize or excrete it. Over time, lead builds up in your bones and teeth. Young children are especially vulnerable to the mental and physical conditions lead may trigger, which include developmental delay, learning disabilities, irritability, hearing loss and seizures.19

Car Manufacturers Move Toward Vehicles With Fewer Chemicals

In response to consumer demand, car manufacturers are moving toward reducing the amount and density of toxic chemicals off-gassing into new cars. While researchers continue to find a large number of chemicals, some manufacturers are now producing cars without hazardous flame retardant bromines and PVCs that outgas chlorine. In 2006, PVC was used in nearly all new cars,20 but today 17 percent of new vehicles are PVC-free and 60 percent are free of bromines.21

Topping the list of cars with the least number of chemicals were 2012 models of Honda Civic, Toyota Prius and the Honda CR-Z. The worst ranking were the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, Chrysler 200 SC and the Kia Soul.

Although the industry trade group, Global Automakers, and Kia Motors did not comment on the results, Marcos Frommer, manager of corporate affairs and communications at American Honda, said,22 "We're pleased to be recognized by HealthyStuff.org for our efforts. Over the past decade, Honda has taken a number of steps to reduce or remove chemicals of concern from our vehicles."

Take Care in Warm Weather and Heavy Traffic

Your car is a chemical laboratory as plastics exposed to temperatures as high as 192 degrees Fahrenheit (F) and dashboard temperatures up to 248 F increase the amount of VOCs released in an enclosed area.23 The featured study found the danger to children, adults and pets was greatest in the first six months after the car rolls off the showroom floor.24

Carmakers say they are moving toward removing VOCs from vehicles and have made improvements in cabin ventilation and filtration systems. Many of these changes were triggered by regulations in Europe where greater restrictions on exposure to toxins were implemented to protect people and the environment.25 While China and the state of California are developing their own regulations, the U.S. federal government is lagging in any effort to do the same.

Ventilating your car is a two-edged sword. While it’s best to keep your window open when driving a new car, it’s better to close the windows in heavy traffic and turn on your recirculating function to reduce the amount of toxic-laden exhaust entering the car.26

You may also consider purchasing a used car, as VOCs and lead emissions are significantly reduced after six months. The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency warns continued exposure to pollutants found in new cars may lead to reproductive issues, damage to your liver, kidneys and central nervous system, and cancer.27,28

In order to reduce off-gassing triggered by high heat, park your car in the shade and leave a window open if possible. At the very least, open doors on both sides of the car to allow for air exchange before getting in to drive after the car has been closed and parked. Avoid sitting in the car when it’s parked and use a solar shade on the windows to reduce heat buildup in the vehicle. Frequent dusting with a microfiber cloth will help reduce dust in the car where airborne chemicals often settle.