New Car Smell: Presented To You with Hidden Toxics

by Vins
Published: Updated:


Michigan researchers at the non-profit Ecology Center testing more than 200 automobile vehicle models from 2011-2012 for interior air quality found high volumes of fifty toxic chemicals. Overall 275 chemicals can be found in the cabin of new cars. Solvents, adhesives, lubricants, plastics, and flame retardants contain toxins known as phthalates, polyvinyl chloride, heavy metals, benzene, toluene, bromine, and the notorious formaldehyde. What do these chemicals have in common? They are volatile organic compounds (VOC’s) that produce an off-gassing familiar to many as the “new car smell,” especially in high temperatures.

At present no government mandate requires testing chemical levels inside vehicles, leaving the public poorly informed about the potentially hazardous chemicals present in a new cars’ cabins. Health risks include confusion, headaches, and drowsiness, while long-term effects include learning and memory problems, birth defects, fertility issues, and complications of the liver, thyroid, kidneys, and blood. Although the absence of regulation may be beneficial to car dealerships, the public needs to know more so that they can demand safety improvements.

Past corporate news coverage of the toxic chemicals found in a new cars cabin exists, but those reports often fail to convey the full significance of the issue. For instance, Fox News, CBS, and other networks reported the Ecology Center’s 2012 study, but have not provided subsequent new or relevant information. Newscasters strategically used ambiguous headlines and phrases like “could be bad” or “may be harmful” in reporting the findings.  Such coverage left consumers to believe that rolling down the vehicle’s window is enough to resolve any health issues associated with chemical off-gassing.

Source:  Cliff Weathers, “Is That New Car Smell Killing You?”, AlterNet, February 7, 2014,

Student Researcher: Ampelia Padilla (College of Marin)

Faculty Evaluator: Susan Rahman (College of Marin)