The carcinogens behind that new-car smell

The other day, I took a spin with my friend in his brand-new car.

“Still has that ‘new-car smell,’” I said to him.

He grimaced. “Yeah, but I hear it’s not so good for you.”

That may have been the understatement of the year — and you need to know why — and how to reduce the serious danger it poses…

New cars, not old, cause cancer

Everyone thinks that older cars are the real health hazard. After all, their exhaust systems are often faulty, and they emit carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and sulfur dioxide.

All of these destroy the lungs, but none are classified as carcinogens.

What if I told you that it’s the new, off-the-production-line automobiles that are filled with cancer-causing chemicals?

These chemicals are known as VOCs — volatile organic chemicals — and they begin releasing from materials used in the manufacture of car interiors, like felt, plastic and imitation leather, through a process known as off-gassing, the minute they roll off the production line.

The three worst offenders you breathe in as you ride around town? Formaldehyde, acetaldehyde and benzene.

That’s bad enough, but Chinese and American researchers found that levels of these known carcinogenic chemicals exceeded safe limits within the cabin of a new car that was parked outside for just twelve days.

Which chemicals cause cancer?

Formaldehyde is a colorless, flammable gas with a strong odor. (If you ever dissected samples in a high school biology lab, you’ll remember the smell of formaldehyde). The International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) classifies formaldehyde as a human carcinogen.

Acetaldehyde is a clear, flammable liquid with a fruity odor. It can make breathing difficult. Acetaldehyde is considered a probable human carcinogen.

Benzene is a colorless or slightly yellow flammable liquid with a sweetish odor. Both the International Agency for Cancer Research and the EPA have determined that benzene is carcinogenic to humans.

Altogether, researchers determined that the Incremental Lifetime Cancer Risk (ILCR) from these chemicals detected inside the new car used in their study was high enough to imply a “high health risk for drivers.”

But the threat is heightened depending on drive time and temperature…

Past research has shown that even just twenty minutes in a new car can expose people to unsafe amounts of benzene and formaldehyde. And the longer the commute, the higher that exposure and the risks go.

As well, concentrations of these chemicals grew higher based not on the outside air temperature, but on the temperature inside the automobile…

According to car experts, cars are a lot like greenhouses in the way that they absorb and hold heat. Sunlight enters through all the windows at once, heating the dashboard and seats, which radiate heat as a result. With the windows rolled up, fresh air can’t get inside to circulate the heat — or those chemicals — out.

How to avoid the dangers of that new-car smell

If you’re determined to have that new car, there are still some ways to minimize your risks:

  • Leave the windows open and let some of the chemicals “air” out whenever possible.
  • Park in the shade to avoid overheating the car’s interior which could promote off-gassing.
  • Use reflective sunshades.
  • Select fabric seats. That leather smell? It’s chemicals.
  • Avoid sunroofs. The sealants that keep water out are full of VOCs.
  • Keep your car clean. Chemicals are attracted to dust.
  • Get an air-purifying plant and keep it in your car. Some common ones are spider plants, pothos and philodendrons.
  • Use a portable air purifier with a HEPA filter. If driving around with a plant doesn’t appeal to you, get a portable air purifier that uses a HEPA filter for your car – or even better, one for the front seat and one for the back.

Of course, the simplest way to avoid exposure is to buy a used car, where most of the VOCs have already been off-gassed (released into the environment).

But you may also want to know that formaldehyde is not only a threat inside your new car — you’re exposed to high emissions in your own home when the summer heat rises. Read up on how to take down those risks too.

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Driving a Brand New Car Could Come at a Cost to Your Health — Science Alert

Observation, prediction, and risk assessment of volatile organic compounds in a vehicle cabin environment — Cell Reports Physical Science

How to Get Rid of Your New Car VOCs — You Tube

Formaldehyde and cancer risk — American Cancer Society

Benzene and cancer risk — American Cancer Society

Joyce Hollman

By Joyce Hollman

Joyce Hollman is a writer based in Kennebunk, Maine, specializing in the medical/healthcare and natural/alternative health space. Health challenges of her own led Joyce on a journey to discover ways to feel better through organic living, utilizing natural health strategies. Now, practicing yoga and meditation, and working towards living in a chemical-free home, her experiences make her the perfect conduit to help others live and feel better naturally.