July 3, 2007

Could That New-Car Smell Be Toxic?

New Study Details Toxic Chemical Levels in Car Interiors

By  Dale Buss

Do-gooders are trying to ruin the romance of that new-car smell just like they did with red meat and cigarettes. And at least some automakers are going along with the effort.

An environmental advocacy group rated more than 200 new vehicles sold in the United States based on the presence of chemicals in interior parts that “off-gas,” or evaporate and are thus released into the air. These chemicals contribute not only to the new-car smell but also to a “variety of acute and long-term health concerns,” according to the Ecology Center, the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based group that issued the report.

“We really want the [auto] industry to become leaders in designing some of these materials out of their vehicles and having chemical policies that produce cleaner vehicles,” said Jeff Gearhart, Clean Car campaign director for the group.

Some auto companies embraced the study’s conclusions, notably Volvo and Honda, which each placed a vehicle among the four best, according to the Ecology Center’s criteria. Nissan—whose Versa model placed dead last—also owned up to the results, as did Hyundai.

Other carmakers, however—including General Motors and Chrysler—complained that the study’s conclusions were irrelevant, in part because the report didn’t draw conclusions about the actual quality of the air in any new vehicle.

And at least one independent expert in indoor-air quality also questioned the relevance of the study and of the general assertion that off-gassing from any interior plastics should prompt health concerns.

“They didn’t do any air-quality measurements; their conclusions were sort of extrapolations,” said Michael Shaw, executive vice president and director of marketing for Interscan Corp., a Los Angeles company that makes instruments to measure indoor-air quality.

What the Testers Looked for—and Found

The Ecology Center report, available at HealthyCar.org, has explained that the fumes given off by some interior components are from nefarious sources. It also lists the vehicles that fared worst in its examination.

HealthyCar.org focused on a handful of substances with “known toxicity, persistence and tendency to build up in people and the environment,” including bromine. Used as a flame retardant in plastics, bromine is released into the environment over the life of a vehicle. The fire retardants have been associated with thyroid problems and other health concerns, the report said.

Chlorine was also crucial in the report. It is associated with the use of polyvinyl chloride, a widely used type of plastic that contains phthalates—chemicals that have been associated with decreased fertility, damage to the liver and other health problems, according to HealthyCar.org.

Lead, sometimes used as an additive in automotive plastics, was a third culprit; its role in brain damage is well-known. Other chemicals tested for HealthyCar.org included arsenic, chromium, mercury and tin, each of which is an allergen, carcinogen or a cause of other health problems, depending on their concentrations and exposure levels.

The Ecology Center used a portable X-ray fluorescence device to identify the elemental composition of plastics in each vehicle in 15 different components ranging from the steering wheel to carpet to soft door trim—areas that are most likely to be touched or otherwise contribute to human exposure. Center personnel did their testing at cooperative car dealerships.

Overall, Volvo and Honda vehicles performed notably well according to the Ecology Center’s criteria, with the Chevrolet Cobalt, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Honda Odyssey and Volvo V50 faring the best. At the same time, Chevrolet also placed three entries in the study’s worst 10 vehicles, as did Kia-Hyundai. Worst in the study were the Chevrolet Aveo, Kia Rio, Nissan Versa and Scion xB.

Some Carmakers Embrace the Warnings

Not surprisingly, the best-performing carmakers were most positive toward the report. With a traditional reputation for safety, Volvo called it “natural” for the brand “to offer its customers a good environment even inside the car,” including both a conscientious use of materials and good air-filtering systems.

“The textiles and leather used in our cars meet stringent Oeko-Tex standard 100,” noted Anders Karrberg, Volvo’s environmental director, referring to a voluntary international labeling scheme for textiles that have been analyzed for substances that are considered harmful to health. “We also work with contact allergies and are phasing out toxic substances such as certain phthalates.”

Honda maintained that its relatively good showing in HealthyCar.org in part reflected its growing attention to a car’s interior environment. For example, the company has been working on a “biofabric” made from plant materials that wouldn’t give off any of the toxic fumes criticized by the Ecology Center. This biofabric is designed to be durable and highly resistant to fading and degradation from sunlight, according to David Iida, a spokesman for American Honda Motor Co. in Detroit.

“We’re going to use it for seats, carpets and maybe even roof liners, even the inside of doors, beginning with the introduction of our fuel-cell vehicle next year and in other models afterward,” Iida said.

Nissan didn’t fare well. It questioned some details of the report and said that almost no consumers have ever complained about off-gassing. But the company didn’t dispute the broad conclusions of HealthyCar.org.

“The important issue is, what are we doing about substances that have been proven to pose a risk?” said Fred Standish, a Nissan spokesman in Smyrna, Tennessee. “We’re phasing out those substances right now.” Existing supplier contracts are governing the pace of some of the changes, Standish said.

Hyundai said that it is “proactively working with our suppliers and partners…evaluating chemicals of concern.” But company spokesman Miles Johnson also said that Hyundai is still “evaluating the techniques” used in the report.

GM, Chrysler Come out Fighting

Other automakers were acknowledging nothing of the environmentally irresponsible brush the Ecology Center was trying to paint them with.

GM said that it “does not agree” with the findings “because we believe the scientific method used is not valid for making” the rankings and claims. “We’ve historically been a leader in this area of research,” said Jodi Theut, manager of energy, environment and safety policy for GM. Strict global standards are “applied to our use of supplier products,” she added, and GM uses “a strategic selection process for materials based on a health and environmental assessment” that takes into account how materials will affect vehicle occupants as well as employees.

Chrysler sounded a similar note, citing “concerns about the methodology” in the report, including a lack of information about the presence of the toxic elements in the vehicle compartment air, levels of exposure of occupants and risks of exposure.

“By implication,” said Chrysler spokesman Max Gates, “the Center suggests that the presence of these elements in vehicle components, by itself, constitutes risk for occupants. This is not supported by the documentation.” And, Gates added, “At best, this information is unusable by the consumer. At worst, it could result in environmentally conscious consumers selecting vehicles based on false premises.”

What Difference Does It Make?

Interscan’s Shaw agreed with GM and Chrysler’s skepticism, asserting that, “If this was really a good-faith study, [the Center] would have actually measured the compounds in the air in a car…. They haven’t really added much to our knowledge on this issue.”

At the same time, Shaw said that, as in everything, common sense applies. In extreme circumstances, toxic gases emanating from vehicle interior components certainly could cause irritation or other health problems. “If you put a brand-new car in the desert sun and keep the windows tightly closed for awhile, you’re going to find elevated levels of compounds,” he said. That applies whether the new car smells bad or not.

Many variables besides the composition of materials determine the actual healthfulness of the atmosphere inside a vehicle, Shaw said, including temperatures, its air-moving system, the air-filtering devices in some models—even the entry of fuel fumes and other factors from outside the car.

A group of researchers from Technical University Munich recently studied the overall issue of the toxicity of the air inside vehicles and concluded: “Our investigations indicated no apparent health hazard of parked motor-vehicle indoor air.”

Gearhart, of the Ecology Center, conceded that HealthyCar.org didn’t take into account all these other dynamics and that each factor can have a great influence on the actual toxicity of the air inside a vehicle. “But in some ways we think our study may actually be a more fair comparison of vehicles because, if it’s difficult to control all those factors, you can start by looking at the materials,” he said.

Even if your car doesn’t have a strong new-car smell anymore, that doesn’t mean chemicals aren’t still off-gassing.

Gearhart wants consumers to do exactly what Chrysler warned that consumers shouldn’t do with the data. “There is a range of sensitivities in the population,” including allergies and asthma, he said. “So this is something people should consider when buying a vehicle.”