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The Scary Truth Behind That New Car Smell

In a world awash in artificial fragrances, few are as readily identifiable as the new car smell. There is no scientific reason why this pervasive odor should be viewed as a feature but plenty of evidence that what you are smelling is actually harmful to your health. Yet many buyers cling to the new car smell and even purchase aerosol sprays to attempt to replicate this distinctive odor. 

Reader’s Digest explains that the new car smell is created with the various components that make up your car “outgas” volatile organic compounds (VOCs).  What makes new car smell so unique is the quantity of toxic materials that make up your car and the fact the odor is trapped and heated in a confined passenger compartment. 

If you remove the positive and aspirational aspects of a new car purchase, there is little to recommend for the new car smell. What you are smelling are the toxic emissions of polyurethane, adhesives, polyester, paint, sealants, brominated flame retardants (BFRs), oils, all manner of plastics and hundreds of other dangerous chemicals. 

The love of new car smell is not universal. The Truth About Cars reports that Chinese buyers want odorless new cars and reject vehicles where the new car smell is too strong. Whether it is the overwhelming smell of treated leather or cheap plastic outgassing in the interior of an econobox commuter car, Chinese buyers are willing to reject vehicles that smell too strongly. Lincolns exported to the Chinese market have carbon canisters placed in their interiors to remove the new car smell by the time the car arrives at its destination. 

According to J.D. Power, an unpleasant interior aroma was the primary concern of Chinese car buyers in 2015 and 2016. In response to this, Ford has hired 18 testers to make sure both components and finished vehicles are not emitting too strong of an aroma. Rejected vehicles and parts are swapped out before these cars ever make it to the showroom. 

This is a great start and hopefully the first step toward making car interiors a safer environment for the occupants. The new car smell today is not as strong as it was a decade or two ago because extremely toxic chemicals such as polyvinyl chloride have been removed in the North American market. 

It is possible that the widespread concern in China about the toxicity of new car smell stems from the fact their country’s environmental, air quality and safety regulations are more relaxed than in the U.S. and Europe. Their skepticism is not misplaced. Indoor air pollution, including inhaling toxic chemicals while in a vehicle, may actually be as dangerous, or more, than outdoor air pollution.

Chinese car sales now exceed U.S. car sales and car manufacturers eager to capitalize on this growing market have no choice but to accept that the Chinese consumer does share our zeal for the new car smell. It is also worth noting that rather than relying on the toxic cleaners that are the staple of auto parts stores, car washers and automotive detailers in much of the world, Chinese car owners frequently scrub their vehicle interiors with nontoxic water and vinegar to remove the overwhelming chemical smells.

Consumers are becoming more aware of the dangers of VOCs and hopefully at some point in the future car manufacturers will compete to build vehicles with the fewest toxic chemicals in the interior. In 2012 comparison, the Honda Civic edged out the Toyota Prius as the least toxic car interior. Honda was also lauded for a program to use PVC-free materials on all of their vehicles. As of 2017, 12 of their 15 models sold in the U.S. and Canada are PVC-free. Volvo and Ford had also adopted similar standards at the time of the study, but across the industry only 17 percent of car interiors were PVC-free.
We can have an impact on the pervasive new car smell by raising awareness about the dangers of VOCs. On a personal level, you can adopt safer cleaning practices and avoid making the situation worse by adding toxic cleaning solutions into the closed cabin of your vehicle. The good news is that the same nontoxic cleaners you use in your house can also be used to wipe clean the leather, plastic and cloth that makes up the interior of a car. For information on how to clean almost anything safely check out this article on nontoxic cleaners.
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