Study Finds “New Car Smell” Linked To Birth Defect, Cancer Causing Chemicals

That so-called “New Car Smell” has been linked to birth defects and cancer causing chemicals, according to an emerging study.

Research indicated that the smell appears to come from off-gassing of toxic chemicals in the car’s interior, including brominated flame retardants (BFRs), chromium, and lead, said WHPTV. The researchers identified over 275 different chemicals in vehicle interiors, and some are known to cause birth defects, impaired learning, liver problems, and cancer, said WHPTV.

The 2012 new vehicle study was conducted by the nonprofit Ecology Center, which analyzed the chemical content in over 200 new cars for its annual Top 10 Healthy and Unhealthy Car Interiors designation. The higher the vehicle rating, the greater the chemical level, based on Ecology Center testing methods, said WHPTV. A complete list of ratings can be found at

The 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport and Chrysler 200 SC, both had scores in the high range. The Outlander tested with bromine and antimony-based flame retardants in a number of areas, including its seating; chromium-treated leather; and lead in its seating materials, WHPTV said. It is because new cars have very high levels of an array of chemicals that they are known for their “new car smell.” The 2011 Kia Soul also rated poorly, noted The Chicago Tribune.

Although toxin rates are declining—in part because some automakers have reduced their use of PVC and BFRs—automakers continue to use the toxins because of their flame-retardant properties, explained The Chicago Tribune. The Ecology Center’s research is meant to urge automakers to consider safer materials.

The research involved a portable X-ray Fluorescence (XRF) analyzer, which detects lead, cadmium, chlorine, arsenic, mercury, tin, and antimony, among others. The team checked seats, arm rests, steering wheels, door trims, and shift knobs, to name some, said WHPTV.

According to the researchers, car interiors act as so-called “chemical reactors,” with interior temperatures reaching levels as high as 192 degrees Fahrenheit. High temperatures, explained WHPTV, can raise volatile compound levels and hasten material breakdown. Of note, indoor toxic chemical exposure can be high, especially in a tighter space, such as in a car.

The Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has said that indoor air pollution is among the top environmental threats to public health given that Americans spend about 90% of their time inside; Americans spend about 1½ hours inside their cars daily, WHPTV wrote.

“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,” Jeff Gearhart, the group’s research director, told the Chicago Tribune.

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