Off-Gassing Interiors of New Cars

by drcharles on June 4, 2013

Car InteriorAs I shopped for a new car last year, I realized that my priorities were considered odd by most car salesmen. The three most important characteristics I desired in a new car were good gas mileage, good crash safety, and relatively low concentrations of “new car smells.” The often celebrated (but particularly noxious) “new car smell” is actually a synthetic blend of respiratory irritants and potential carcinogens off-gassing from the plastic, glues, and seating materials found inside the car. One year later I am happy I chose my car from one of the top five lowest emitting models.

Testing of car interiors has revealed the presence of volatile organic compounds, (including formaldehyde, toluene, and benzene) polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs) which are used as flame retardants, and phthalic acid esters (phthalates). These chemicals and substance are known to exacerbate respiratory illnesses, produce nose and throat irritation, cause headaches, and even irritate the skin. Exposure may even increase the risk of cancer, endocrine system disruption, and neurological problems.

The best cars of 2011-12 in terms of low levels of hazardous chemicals, according to The Ecology Center’s testing and report, include the Honda Civic, Toyota Prius, Honda CR-Z, Nissan Cube, Acura RDX/ZDX, Audi S5, and the Smart Coupe. The full list of car rankings is worth reviewing.  Not listed but supremely admirable is the Amish horse-powered buggy.

As the summer approaches, and the heat goes up, off-gassing and the release of chemicals from car interiors greatly increases. It is wise to ventilate any car that has been sitting in the heat.

Some advise driving with the windows cracked to improve air quality. While this would certainly reduce the ambient concentration of chemicals released from the car interior, I worry that driving on busy multi-lane highways with the windows wide open trades poor quality interior air for poor quality exterior air.

The “outdoor” products of combustion and car operation include fine particulates and ultrafine particulates, the inhalation of which has been directly correlated with increased cardiovascular risk. Ultrafine particulates in particular penetrate deep into our bodies via the lungs, create inflammation, and promote heart disease. Their emission has been estimated to result in an additional 4 million deaths per year across the world, according to the EPA.

In order to achieve the best air quality, perhaps some variation of this crazy yet deliberate plan might help.  Purchase a car that scores well in terms of the safety of its materials.  Ventilate the car well in the morning.   Then close the windows and run the AC with recirculated/filtered air while on the 4-6 lane highway, thereby decreasing particulates and combustion products inhaled from outdoors. Park and leave the car windows cracked open all day as the car bakes in increasingly hot weather. On the way home repeat this sequence, being careful to disengage emotionally from the many provocations of aggressive drivers, who incidentally remind us of brain-starved, half-human zombies.

Good luck with your own paranoid routine, but do consider that new car smell when you purchase your next vehicle.  It definitely gives me a headache.

{ 9 comments… read them below or add one }

Kate June 5, 2013 at 12:07 pm

I remember that distinct nausea and headache of my childhood family vacations in our smelly car. I think the materials have improved somewhat, and the vinyl shower curtain smell is less prevalent. the rankings of the various cars is helpful, glad someone is thinking this way, and glad the japanese companies are pushing this issue


Gibbon1 July 8, 2013 at 1:52 am

I bought one new car in my life, and it had that new car smell for about two weeks when I left a doggie bag of Thai food in it overnight, the new car smell was gone never to return.


Gail Hamilton July 23, 2014 at 8:20 pm

I just bought a Honda Civic 2014. On the 100 mile trip home, I began experiencing very strong eye irritation, a sore throat and problems with breathing. I didn’t drive the car for 2 days, and began to feel better, but yesterday needed to drive (round trip) 140 miles. The same thing happened. I had left all the windows open at night and kept windows partially open while driving and the air vent open. Since I live on the northern coast of CA there is not much heat. Any more suggestions? I’m going to use the air conditioner. I’ve got it outside with all windows down now.


Be Prepared Solar November 15, 2014 at 12:14 am

That new car smell makes me so sick! I just bought a 2015 Rogue and I have terrible headache every time i drive it. I wish there was something I could do to speed up the process of getting rid f the smell.


Val Hall March 3, 2015 at 5:20 am

My niece purchased a new car in 2013 and it is still off gassing in Feb. 2015. There is a white powder at the base of the front windscreen especially if left in the sun and a film on the rear windscreen.


Judy Burgschmidt February 23, 2016 at 9:11 pm

Hi there, hoping you can direct me to where I can get help. After reading a few articles with a similar problem, I believe you could possibly direct me to the best place to report my problem
I bought a 2016 Toyota Venza with the “redwood package leather seats ”
The car is off gassing so badly that o have parked it in the garage every night with the windows open., trying to air it out ( live in Canada and its winter)
I’ve owned th car for 3 months and whenever I drive it, my eyes puff up, my glands swell, throat hours, and it’s kind of hard to breath.
I drive with the windows open.
Today I finally called the dealer and told them, the car is making me sick. They were very supposed and we’re going to check with other owners and see what they could find out.
I have owned Numerous new toyota vehicles and never had a problem before.
I bought TOYOTA as I believe they do make better Green choices as a manufacturer, but this is just unbelievable that a car can make a person feel so toxic and sick!
Can you give me any advice where I could have the vehicle tested for VOA’s etc? And can you recommend any next steps?
Thanks so very much!
Judy B


Lynn July 20, 2016 at 3:53 pm

I just purchased a new toyota highlander w leather. I can literally taste the chemical smell in the back of my throat. I’ve been doing everything to alleviate the off gassing and I’m hoping it goes away soon. It doesn’t bother my husband but he does notice it. Have you solved the problem with your new car? If so how? Thank you


Sharon July 8, 2016 at 9:50 am

Now that my kids are grown I decided to trade in my 2011 Toyota Sienna in for something a little more fun and sporty. It’s summertime and just about every car I poke my head into burns my sinuses and hurts my chest. Turns out just about every car out there has those synthetic leather seats. Even when a car contains real leather, there’s usually fake vinyl on the dashboard, arm rest, head rest and on the side of the doors that is off-gassing. Also some cars are using what they call “soft-touch” which contains a glass fiber flame retardant that also off-gasses. It took me two days to start feeling better after looking at new cars that were baking in the sun.


Tetala August 31, 2016 at 6:13 pm

Bought a Toyota highlandser xle in 2016. The seats are plastic for one not leather and the car gives me such a massive migraine from the off gassing. It’s horrible. I don’t know why car company’s use so much plastic. Any suggestions???


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