Ahh, the scent of a new car. This intoxicating smell draws us into the newest models of cars – but it may actually be killing you.
That new car smell is a cocktail of dangerous volatile compounds that come from an assortment of chemicals contained a car's materials. When these materials are first assembled into the car, they "off-gas" many of their compounds into the air which is kept in high concentrations inside the sealed cars.
What is the new car smell?
The bouquet of smells that most people find incredibly enticing is actually the result of solvents, adhesives, rubbers, plastics and fabrics all used to create the luxury of a new car. Each material contains volatile organic compounds, known as VOCs, and many of these can be harmful to deadly.
In any given new car there are chemicals floating through the air like Benzene, a chemical found in crude oil, toluene, found in TNT, formaldehyde, a chemical used to preserve building materials, and other heavy metals. Immediate symptoms from exposure to these chemicals can be as small as a sore through all the way up to nausea and vomiting.
The EPA estimates that continued exposure to new car smells can cause hormone imbalance, reproductive problems and serious damage to the liver, kidneys and nervous system. In some cases, exposure can lead to cancer.
These facts are particularly troubling when you consider that the average person spends around an hour a day in their vehicle.
What's the risk?
Stepping back for a second, it's important not to be alarmist about these chemicals. We're exposed to a large variety of dangerous chemicals daily, the key is limiting exposure time. Being exposed to these VOCs for a few months after you just bought a new car may not kill you, but if you buy a new car every year for the rest of your life, you may need to be more careful.
There is other good news as well. Researchers estimate that the risk diminishes over the course of about the first three years, with the highest risk being in the first 3 months. Even better, all the major automakers are working to remove these dangerous chemicals from new cars to help protect consumers.
One major chemical that used to be a major danger but that has nearly been removed from all new cars is polyvinyl chloride, known as PVC, which produces highly dangerous VOCs known to cause cancer. This is the same chemical used in water pipes, but in this usage case, it's completely safe as the compounds do not dissolve or become aerosolized.
Along with the removal of these compounds in the first place, automakers are also installing better filtrations systems to help cut down on passenger exposer.
So, what does all this mean? If you've been eyeing that new car, don't let this stop you from buying it. Volatile organic compounds and carcinogens are all around us. The important thing to focus on is limiting exposure. If you do buy a new car, try to keep good ventilation while driving for the first few months.
However, if you want to avoid these chemicals altogether, looking for a used car over 2 years old would be your best bet.
So, that new car smell we all love is actually a cocktail of dangerous chemicals that could do us some harm. You don't need to worry too much about it, but you might not want to sit inside your new car for too long – let it air out a little.