Why you should care
Because that new-car smell that’s oh so good could be oh so bad for you.
Consider this: When you sit in your car with the windows closed, you occupy an environment that loosely fits the Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s definition of a confined space. It’s an enclosed area with limited access — large enough for a person to enter to perform tasks.
The term is more commonly applied to things like chemical storage tanks, but then, you may not realize how closely an automobile’s interior resembles a storage tank for various chemical gases — which we usually toss off as a harmless “new-car smell.”
Or is it?
According to Joe Wiesenfelder, executive editor at Cars.com, “New-car smell is the odor of new interior materials such as soft plastics, upholstery and adhesives. Sometimes referred to with the scary-sounding term ‘outgassing,’ these odors are nearly unavoidable in new products.”
Labeling outgassing as “scary” is pretty spot on. Particularly when we tell you the haze you sometimes see on automobile windows is the residue of those gases accumulating on the interior surfaces of the car. As a passenger, you have no choice but to inhale these gases — whose formal name is even scarier: volatile organic compounds.
All of which leads to the million-dollar question: Are these volatile organic compounds toxic? According to a recent study conducted by Yeh-Chung Chien of the Department of Industrial Safety and Health at Hungkuang University in Taiwan, the answer is yes — and no.
Chien’s study, published by the international journal Science of the Total Environment, found little toxicity in new-car odors under lab conditions. However, it also found that while concentrations are relatively low, they could still be higher than the recommended indoor guidelines during the first six months of a car’s life.
And even after those first six months, particular care should be taken in very hot climates. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that the air inside an automobile can climb to 172 degrees Fahrenheit even when the temperature outside is only in the 80- to 100-degree range.
Such a superheated environment can cause interior components harboring volatile organic compounds to outgas more dramatically. As a precaution, you should immediately lower the windows after getting into a car on a very hot day. And run the air conditioner to cycle in fresh air.
Auto manufacturers are aware of the situation and working to mitigate it. Says Wiesenfelder, “The industry has made efforts to reduce both the toxicity and the amount of exposure a cabin occupant can experience. Removing environmentally harmful compounds in the manufacturing processes is a priority.”
Good news, except that for most people, that same (potentially harmful) scent says “new car” and carries positive associations. That’s why carmakers are trying to preserve that just-off-the-conveyor-belt smell — while reducing toxicity.