“New Car Smell” Is the Scent of Dozens of Chemicals

Some people adore the new car smell, while others detest it. However, few people are aware that the fragrance has a name: off-gassing. In essence, what you are breathing in is a mixture of small particles released by the factory-fresh plastics and synthetic fabrics of a new car.

Is Off-gassing from Plastics Harmful, Though?

Off-gassing, as the name implies, is the release of chemicals and allergens formed from hydrocarbons, commonly known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), into the environment.

The cabin polymers start to break down at the molecular level and scatter into the air as they react with the atmosphere, sunlight, and heat.

Researchers’ Points of View

According to a recent study by scientists at the University of California, the smell isn’t as harmless as it first appears to be.

A study by researchers David Volz and Alekhya Reddam investigated the threshold at which a person’s exposure to known carcinogens would exceed acceptable limits.

The study examined the percentage of the daily tolerances recommended by Californian health officials for formaldehyde and benzene, two carcinogens.

It was discovered that the levels of formaldehyde and benzene would surpass the daily permissible maximum after just a 20-minute journey, with the risk rising over that with further time spent in the car.

Alarmingly, more drivers in the Californian cities of San Francisco and Los Angeles were 10% more likely than in any other study area to exceed cancer risk criteria linked to benzene or formaldehyde.

Cities with more traffic and congestion actually increase commute times, which consequently increases the danger of exposure to carcinogens.

Overall, the study raises questions about the risk that people who spend a lot of time in their cars could face from breathing in benzene and formaldehyde.

Not only do autos off-gas, but most synthetic materials do as well, especially those made from petroleum. A 2001 CSIRO report connected buildings with VOC concentrations of over 10mg per meter-cubed to “Sick Building Syndrome,” a phenomenon where multiple occupants of a building report feeling unwell but without any obvious cause. Everyday household items like fabric, mattresses, carpet and paint will “gas out.” One of the possible causes of Sick Building Syndrome is contaminated air brought on by the gassing out of building materials, mold, or other pollutants, among other things.

With side effects ranging from itching to infertility, new cars alarmingly had up to six times the volume of VOC concentrations as what the CSIRO determined to be the Sick Building Syndrome threshold.

Should I Be Worried?

The good news is that the problem can be solved with a little air. Most of the dirty job should be finished if your car was sitting on the lot, the docks, or on a boat because 80% of off-gassing happens in the first three months of a car’s life. In a moving car with the driver’s window partially down, VOC levels are generally at their lowest.

If possible, park the car in the sun with the windows slightly down and turn on the air conditioning as often as you can to hasten the curing process. Exposure to chemicals is one of the inescapable side effects of contemporary life, although as was already indicated, the health danger posed by brand-new car interiors rapidly decreases over time.

What to Make of it All

Your best option is to only buy used cars if you are very sensitive to air pollution or are worried about inhaling chemicals. The majority of VOCs in an automobile’s interior gradually disappear over time, only to reappear on extremely hot days when the materials emit more fumes than usual.

Rolling your windows down on hot days to let fresh air enter your car is one of the best strategies to prevent exposure. The next generation of drivers may not even have the sentimental linkage that links chemical scents to the exhilaration and accomplishment of a bright, brand-new car if car makers take all these research into consideration.


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