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Volatile Organic Compounds in new car interiors

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The truth about that ‘new car smell’

Many people love the smell of a brand new car, but that characteristic aroma can actually be a signal that you’re inhaling potentially toxic chemicals.

Experts estimate that over 60 volatile organic compounds (VOCs) could be present in new car interiors. The concentration of VOCs is highest when the car is brand new, as things like the plastics, carpets and adhesives inside ‘off-gas’. These levels are thought to decrease by approximately 20% each week. However, high temperatures can increase the concentration of VOCs in car interiors, and good ventilation can decrease it.

Where do they come from?

VOCs can be given off by a range of in-car furnishings and fixtures. For example, plastic mouldings, adhesives, upholstery such as leather and vinyl and carpets can all be sources.

Are they dangerous?

Compounds like xylene, toluene, ethylbenzene, phthalates and alkanes are commonly found in new car interiors. Despite their relatively low concentrations, they may still lead to symptoms such as headaches and drowsiness. No-one really knows the long-term effects of exposure to chemicals at these levels, but in some cases VOC concentrations can exceed recommended guidelines in the first few months. If you have multiple chemical sensitivity (MCS), you may find that you are unable to cope with even small levels of these chemicals. MCS symptoms can include headaches, dizziness and even depression, when exposed to low levels of chemicals that most people can tolerate.

What can I do to reduce VOC levels in my new car?

If VOCs are a concern for you, or you have MCS, then purchasing a used car is probably a preferable option. Used car interiors have had more time to ‘off-gas’ and therefore the concentrations should be lower. VOC levels should have decreased significantly by about 6 months after manufacture. That’s not to say that used cars are completely VOC-free! Be wary of synthetic cleaning products and waxes, fragranced air fresheners and new elements such as rubber mats or upholstery. Fumes from these items can all decrease the air quality inside your car, and can kick-start MCS symptoms. It’s also advisable to ask the car dealer whether the previous owner was a smoker, as residue from cigarette smoke can linger for a long time.

If you’ve already purchased a new car and want to reduce your ongoing exposure to chemicals, there are a few things you can do to help speed up the off-gassing process.

  • ‘Air out’ the car by keeping the windows open wherever possible.
  • Higher temperatures speed up the release of VOCs into the air. Some sources suggest leaving the car out in hot weather with the windows slightly down for a few hours, prior to a thorough non-toxic clean of the interior. 
  • Don’t use any air fresheners or fragrance sprays.
  • Never smoke in your car or allow other people to do so.
  • Instead of using harsh chemical cleaning products, wipe down the interiors with a slightly damp microfibre cloth like this one to capture dust and bacteria.

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