New car smell – some love it, others hate it, but what few may know is that the scent has a name: offgassing. Basically, all those factory-fresh, hi-tech materials in the seats, carpets, steering wheel and dashboard need to breathe and settle. Their combined vapors are what you’re inhaling.
As the name suggests, offgassing is the release of chemicals and allergens, collectively known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), into the surrounding environment. When car manufacturers are trying to work out if the fume levels are too high, they have one tiny little test: if the windows keep fogging up, the fumes are too high. Way to keep things simple, eh?
Offgassing is not car-specific. Everyday household items such as bed linens, mattresses, walls and carpet offgas – scary. A 2001 CSIRO report found that buildings with nasty VOC concentrations of over 10mg per metre-cubed caused ‘Sick Building Syndrome’ – a negative sensory effects on building occupants. Alarmingly, new cars had up to six times that volume of VOC and effects ranging from itching to infertility. Think about it; a car full of people, windows up, aircon on – essentially it’s just you and the fumes. How do you feel about that new car smell now?
WHAT EXACTLY IS IT WE ARE BREATHING?
A big one is brominated fire retardant (BFR) (also known as Bromide). It’s a fire retardant used typically on seats, carpet and bed mattresses. One common BFR, known as deca, collects and lurks in the human body, affecting brain and thyroid function, and can be passed to children via breast milk. Levels of BFR found in Australian breast milk are double those found in European countries where the chemicals are heavily regulated, but less than five times those reported for North America. Even more concerning is bromide offgasses increases when exposed to heat and UV – not great news for Australia.
We already know Polyvinyl Chloride (which we know as PVC) has a lasting effect on the environment, but the soft plastic, which you commonly find on the dash and doors, can also have an impact on human health. The softeners in PVC contain phthalates (a bunch of chemicals used in plastics), which are regulated in several parts of the world because of their suspected carcinogenic properties, but Australia sits behind in regulating this product even though it also offgasses more with heat. But here’s the good news, most manufacturers are phasing out PVC anyway because of its possible health issues and its lack of recyclability.
Thinking of upgrading that pretty interior to tanned leather? Well consider this before you spend your hard earn cash. Chromium is commonly used in tanning to soften hides and stabilize colour, but this allergen, when tested, has caused infertility in rats. A 2005 Japanese study of 101 Japanese cars found greater air pollution in the “luxury cars”, which the study attributed to extensive interior leather trim. Wonder if it’s the same for those leather skirts?
A problem with offgassing is that you can’t necessarily eyeball a material or a product and assess its brew. A film of vapour on the windscreen is the first clue to the possible presence of high VOCs but the detail of what that particular concoction is doing to you and your passengers is impossible to tell from your owner’s manual or your local dealer. Cars are not food products, they’ll tell you where they’re made but not what they’re made of.
The good news is that a little bit of air can improve the problem. 80 per cent of offgassing occurs in the first three months of a car’s life, which means that if your car was sitting on the lot, on the docks or on a boat, most of the dirty work should be done. VOC levels are relatively lowest when the vehicle is in motion with the driver’s window half down. Park the newbie in the sun with the windows slightly down as often as possible and crank up the air-conditioning to fast forward the curing process.
WHO MAKES HEALTHY CARS?
Honda has been US consumer website, HealthyStuff’s top ranked automaker every year since 2007, and the 2012 Honda Civic, with a bromide and PVC-free interior, won the 2012 test. Suzuki, VW, Nissan and Toyota also get high scores for clean interior air. Of Australia’s top selling passenger cars last year, the Toyota Prius, the Audi S5 and the Ford Ranger have the lowest combined scores for bromide, PVCs and lead.
Many manufacturers are taking proactive steps to switch to natural resins, organic based textiles and alternative leather treatments. These all-natural interiors go hand in hand with the new, planet-friendlier powertrains and can be a strong selling point particularly for the family car buyer. Just as consumers have forced the market of genetically unmodified and chemically untainted food to grow, car buyers, armed with knowledge about the ingredients of our vehicles, can force more clarity on the way our cars are fitted, finished and labeled.