Is the Smell of a New Car Toxic?

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The smell of a new car may be intoxicating to a new owner or prospective buyer, but that new car smell is actually the result of a toxic assortment of chemicals. While the unmistakable odor generally wears off over time, prolonged exposure to the chemical assortment behind the smell can have lasting health impacts ranging from increased risk of cancer to liver damage. Learn more about what causes makes the smell of a new car toxic and how to minimize the risks.

Which chemicals make the smell of a new car toxic?

The parts comprising the interior of a car often have volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which can be toxic. These parts range from the plastics, fabrics, and rubbers that are used on items like the dashboard and upholstery. VOCs are also found in the adhesives and solvents used in putting the interior together. In fact, solvents, according to Car and Driver, are the biggest contributors to the smell of a new car.
The toxicity of these VOCs are variable, as there are approximately 200 unique chemicals that qualify as VOCs frequently found in cars. These chemicals are often loosely regulated, if at all. Some examples of VOCs are benzene, formaldehyde, and toluene.

What are the potential health dangers?

According to the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), prolonged exposure to these VOCs can have serious health consequences. These potential consequences include:
  • Allergic reactions
  • Cancer
  • Central nervous system damage
  • Conjunctival irritation
  • Dizziness
  • Eye, nose, and throat irritation
  • Fatigue
  • Headaches
  • Kidney damage
  • Liver damage
  • Loss of coordination
  • Memory impairment
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Visual disorders or impairments
The dangers from VOCs in cars tend to coincide with how long the smell of a new car lasts. During this period, the chemicals can still be unstable. This instability, especially with the addition of heat from the sun, creates an environment where off-gassing, or the release of toxic vapors, may occur.
However, “prolonged exposure” is not generally understood to mean “just driving around in your new car.” There is little evidence to suggest that simply being exposed to the smell of a new car during the off-gassing phase is dangerous. For that, serious and sustained exposure would be required.

How to minimize risks and still have a sweet-smelling ride

As heat plays a big role in the likelihood of off-gassing, avoid parking your car in the sunny areas, or use a sunshade on the dash. Ventilation is also important, so leave the windows open or cracked as much as possible. Wiping down surfaces with a microfiber towel also helps to remove excess chemicals with the bonus of removing dust, too. Do this for the first six months of car ownership, as that is the window of time when the VOCs are most unstable and the smell of a new car toxic.
You don’t need a toxic chemical cocktail for your car to smell good. If you particularly like the smell of a new car, there are air fresheners that mimic the smell of a new car toxic-free. If you just want your car to smell good, here are some easy ways to achieve that:
  • Open a box of dryer sheets, and place it under your seat
  • Fill a cloth sack or sock with coffee, and put it under your seat
  • Sprinkle baking soda on carpet and upholstery, then vacuum after sitting overnight
  • Get your car detailed regularly
  • Use air fresheners that clip into the air vents
  • Spray an aerosol freshener from time to time
These are simple and mostly inexpensive ways to keep achieve the sweet smell of a new car without toxicity.

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