Ahhh. The new car smell. It's so popular, fragrance companies try to replicate it in air fresheners for cars. But did you know that the smell is a result of gases coming from automotive parts, such as the steering wheel, dashboard, armrests and seats? Some chemicals may cause a variety of acute and long-term health issues. The Ecology Center recently released its consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars at HealthyStuff.org after testing more than 200 of the most popular 2011-12 models.
"Research shows that vehicle interiors contain a unique cocktail of hundreds of toxic chemicals that off-gas in small, confined spaces," said Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center. "Since these chemicals are not regulated, consumers have no way of knowing the dangers they face. Our testing is intended to expose these dangers and encourage manufacturers to use safer alternatives."
Chemicals of primary concern include:
• bromine (associated with brominated flame retardants, or BFRs)
• chlorine (indicating the presence of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC and plasticizers)
• heavy metals
Such chemicals have been linked to a range of health problems such as allergies, birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity and cancer. Cars are particularly harsh on plastics in the summer months because of extreme air temperatures of up to 192 degrees Fahrenheit and dash temperatures up to 248 degrees can increase the concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOC's) and break other chemicals down into more toxic substances. Remember the "fogging" that you had to clean off of your windshield? That's from chemical vapors.
The good news is overall ratings are improving. The best vehicles today have eliminated hazardous flame retardants and PVC. Today, 17 percent of new vehicles have PVC-free interiors and 60 percent are produced without BFRs.
Top ranking cars
1 Honda Civic (above): The 2012 Civic achieved its ranking by being free of bromine-based flame retardants in all interior components; using PVC-free interior fabrics and interior trim; and having low levels of heavy metals and other metal allergens.
2 Toyota Prius (2011)
3 Honda CR-Z (2011)
4 Nissan Cube (2011)
5 Acura RDX (2012)
6 Acura ZDX (2012)
7 Audi S5 (2012)
8 Smart Coupe (2011)
9 Toyota Venza (2011)
10 Smart Passion (2011)
Worst ranking cars
1 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport: The 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander contained bromine- and antimony-based flame retardants in the seating and center console; chromium-treated leather on several components; and over 400 ppm lead in seating materials.
2 Chrysler 200 SC (2011)
3 Kia Soul (2011)
4 Nissan Versa (2011)
5 Mazda CX-7 (2011)
6 Hyundai Accent
7 Chevy Aveo 5 (2011)
8 Kia Sportage (2011)
9 Volkswagen Eos (2012)
10 Mini Cooper S Clubman (2012)
Most improved automakers from 2009-2010 to 2011-2012 models in terms of average ratings for their vehicles are: Volkswagen ( up 42 percent) and Mitsubishi (up 38 percent) and Ford (up 30 percent).
Two automakers had overall declining average scores from 2009-2010 to 2011-2012: Daimler AG (down 29 percent) and Volvo (down 13 percent).