Image: Chevrolet Aveo
AP
The 2007 Chevrolet Aveo is one of the worst-rated vehicles at healthycar.org. The rating is based on research conducted by the Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group, which looks for the presence of toxic chemicals in cars.
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updated 1/13/2008 11:09:30 AM ET 2008-01-13T16:09:30

"Oh great, my child's going to be a mutant," says Lou Terrier as the woman explains to him why she wants to look inside his car. Then Bobbi Chase Wilding slips into the passenger seat of Terrier's family wagon, takes a large gray gun from a shopping bag, removes a rectangular, metallic cap from the business end, aims it point-blank at the dashboard, and pulls the trigger.

Nothing happens. Or at least nothing Terrier can see. However, Wilding's weapon is working perfectly as she continues to zap the dash. The Innov-X XRF (for x-ray fluorescence) Analyzer identifies the chemical composition of materials, including the abundance of plastic and fabric, inside an automobile. A discerning eye like Wilding's can then determine that, say, chlorine in the glove-compartment door makes it a possible source of airborne toxins known as phthalates.

A poisonous glove compartment? Buckle up: Emerging research suggests that a car's capacity to do violence to the human body may not be limited to high-speed collisions. In fact, just sitting in the garage with the ignition off could be risky. Best-case scenario, the fumes wafting from the materials surrounding you might merely exacerbate pre-existing asthma or allergies; on the scarier end of the spectrum, those airborne compounds could be carcinogens. And the absolute worst-case scenario: The dashboard's to blame for your small penis.

"I love the smell of deca in the morning," says Wilding as she fires away at the car, confident the XRF will reveal the presence of decabromodiphenyl ether, the world's most common brominated flame retardant.

The dangers of phthalates
Wilding works for the Ecology Center, a nonprofit environmental watchdog group that in 2006 published Toxic at Any Speed: Chemicals in Cars and the Need for Safe Alternatives. The report examined two categories of chemicals lurking in car materials: phthalates and brominated flame retardants, such as deca. Phthalates make plastics softer and more elastic. They have also been shown to lead to liver and kidney damage in rodents. As for the flame retardants, they act like rat poison, too, causing brain damage and thyroid problems.

And while the research on humans is more limited, it's no less alarming. One 2004 study from Sweden showed that children raised in houses with high concentrations of phthalates in the dust were more likely to develop asthma and allergies. Another recent study from the University of Rochester found that men with the most phthalates in their bodies had waists 3 inches wider than those with the least. Still more research suggests that we're being attacked in utero, too: A 2005 paper in Environmental Health Perspectives reported that mothers with higher levels of phthalates in their urine had sons with less-developed genitalia.

Given the potential dangers, the researchers at the Ecology Center decided to see if these toxins would turn up inside cars. In their study of 13 different brands, they sampled the film that collected on the inside of each vehicle's windshield, working under the assumption that what makes its way onto the windshield can easily end up in your lungs. The results, published in Toxic at Any Speed, revealed significant levels of phthalates and brominated flame retardants.

The same year the Ecology Center conducted its study, Japanese scientists at the Osaka Prefectural Institute of Public Health performed an even more extensive analysis. They sampled the air inside 101 newer cars and found that each vehicle contained 241 different airborne toxins (also known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs), including a class of carcinogens called aromatic hydrocarbons.

Finally, in a 2007 study, scientists at Taiwan's Hungkuang University analyzed the air in 20 new vehicles, including coupes, compacts, sedans and SUVs. Once again, the results revealed significantly elevated VOC levels in all of the cabins. Worse, one sedan contained 200 times more xylenes, toxic aromatic hydrocarbons, than human beings can safely inhale.

'Clearly toxic'
If that isn't enough to make you want to stick your head out of the sunroof, consider this: The threat posed by individual chemicals may be dwarfed by what happens when those chemicals gang up. "One interesting thing about indoor air pollution is that there are unique chemical reactions going on in the air between and among chemicals," says Ted Schettler, M.D., science director at the Science and Environmental Health Network, a nonprofit group pushing for changes in environmental policy on the local and national levels. "People have done the analysis and found a synthesis of new compounds, some of which are clearly toxic through a variety of mechanisms."

Terrier's car, a Toyota Matrix, turns out to be not too frightening. It has a tad too much flame retardant on the steering wheel, but the doors, seat cushions, and dashboard come out clean. However, the padding of Terrier's child seat — temporarily vacated by the potentially mutant child — contains a worrisome amount of bromine: 1,850 parts per million. In pool water, where bromine is used as a disinfectant, the concentration isn't supposed to be greater than 10 parts per million.

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Given that the child seat didn't come with the car, the results don't seem to support the Ecology Center's claim that the average automobile is hell on wheels. One explanation may lie in the age of the Matrix — it's a 2003, which is the same year that University of California scientists compared new automobiles with old ones and found that the older vehicles often contained 50 percent fewer VOCs. Research suggests that after about 6 months, the seats and other surfaces in a new car have emitted most of the VOCs capable of entering the air.

But even if the car had been filthy with phthalates, some scientists would argue that Wilding still lacked proof that the passengers were being poisoned.

The worst-case scenario
"If you talk to a toxicologist, you always have to talk about dose," says Jeroen Buters, Ph.D., a toxicologist at the Technical University of Munich. He explains that low dosages of potentially poisonous substances, like, say, aspirin or whiskey, are simply not toxic. But quantifying exactly what dose of VOCs an individual driver might be receiving during his daily commute is tricky, which is why Buters decided to simply expose human cells — without the human — to that very environment.

Buters and his colleagues took two cars of the same make — one brand-new, the other 3 years old — and began by exposing them to 14,000 watts of light from 28 halogen lamps. With the windows closed, that was enough heat to raise the temperature inside both cars to 150°F. The reason for the heat treatment: When the air temp hits triple digits, there's a loosening of the molecular bonds that keep VOCs attached to cabin materials, boosting total toxins in the air. So in essence, Buters re-created the veritable sea of VOCs we wade into upon entering a car that's been baking in the sun all day.

Once the test conditions were set, Buters exposed samples of lung cells and skin tissue to air extracted from inside the enclosed cabins. Two days later, he assessed the impact. "From what we could see and test, there was nothing but a slight aggravation of allergies, and we did the worst-case scenario," Buters says.

Jeff Gearhart, the director of the Ecology Center's Clean Car Campaign, calls the study flawed. "They sampled too few vehicles and too few chemicals to say anything definitive," he says. "We have seen considerable variability among vehicles, depending on the manufacturer and the type of interior trim. He did not specify the materials or the vehicle make."

Buters says he won't reveal the makes and models of the test cars for fear of litigation (despite the happy outcome), but he does mention that the vehicles had leather interiors, which may indeed have had something to do with the results. According to the Ecology Center's ongoing evaluation of VOCs in cars (posted at healthycar.org), the pricier the car, the less toxic its materials. Luxury cars tend to contain safer flame retardants, leather instead of plasticized vinyl, and more stable plastics overall. Nevertheless, Buters believes the results send the right message to consumers.

"We all know that some people are more sensitive (to smells) than others," he says. "Sometimes if you don't feel well, you say 'why?' And you start looking for reasons."

Working to reduce VOCs
It's unlikely anyone would mistake the $17,000 Scion xB for a luxury car, especially if luxury means low VOCs: The hip little econobox is one of the worst-rated vehicles at healthycar.org. Only two other cars are lower on the list: Chevy's Aveo and Nissan's Versa.

When asked about the ranking, Kevin Webber, general manager of vehicle regulation and certification engineering for Toyota (which owns the Scion brand), said that the company is working to reduce VOCs in all of its vehicles by 2010. "To put this in some context, these reductions would mean that VOC levels in our vehicles would be at less than current limits set in Japan for new buildings," he said. "Also, it should be understood that this is not a simple task of replacing one interior material for another. It is still necessary to validate a test that can assess the complex interaction of interior materials that may result in VOC emissions."

Toyota probably won't be the only car manufacturer to view change with trepidation. And one company, Honda, doesn't seem so sure change is necessary, even though its own vehicles score low in VOCs. "Everyone gets into a new car and says, 'Oh, I smell something,' " says Amy Lilly, Honda's environmental and energy-affairs analyst. "Sometimes when someone has read something like the Ecology Center's report, it makes them unduly concerned."

Volvo, on the other hand, doesn't see all that much difference between air quality and air bags — the company considers both critical for passenger safety. Since 1998, Volvo has employed the "clean compartment concept" in all of its vehicles, and it's the only automaker with such a program. That means, for example, phthalates are kept to a minimum; all metals meet the European standard for jewelry (with nickel exposure kept below 0.5 µg/cm2/wk to prevent contact allergies); and seats are upholstered with not just leather, but chromium-free leather. Brominated flame retardants are also out, though that wasn't entirely Volvo's call: When researchers in Sweden found out 5 years ago that levels of the chemicals were increasing rapidly in breast milk, they banned them completely.

That new-car smell
Ironically, once you remove most of the chemicals from a car's cabin, you also remove an ineffable joy of owning a new car: the new-car smell. And that's fine with the folks at Volvo, who equate that addictive odor with unhealthy air. "We have our own nose team," says Eeva-Liisa Book, Volvo's manager of environmental communication. This intrepid group of nonsmoking, non–deodorant-wearing 20- to 40-year-olds takes a sniff of nearly every material destined for a new Volvo model. Such is the power of their noses, that a single nostril wrinkle can send something to the scrap heap.

Until more evidence accumulates, it's doubtful that anyone shopping for a new car will consider VOCs ahead of AWD, or ABS, or any of the other acronyms with more tangible impacts on our wallets and well-being. Nevertheless, Gearhart hopes the reports from the Ecology Center and the Osaka Prefectural Institute of Public Health will at least make consumers think about cabin air quality.

"We have over 100 million cars on the road built without standards for the makeup of a healthy vehicle," says Gearhart. "We're trying to prod the industry to be more proactive, not only in avoiding the chemicals we've indicated, but in using safer chemicals, period."

EPA silent on the issue
Of course, new standards might be implemented sooner if the federal government would flex some regulatory muscle with automakers. But surprisingly, the same agency that sets limits on how much pollution cars can spew into the outside air seems indifferent to the toxic smog swirling inside them. "(The EPA) has no position on indoor air in cars," says spokesperson Dave Ryan. Yet the EPA's Web site shows that it's clearly aware of the danger:

Many organic compounds are known to cause cancer in animals; some are suspected of causing, or are known to cause, cancer in humans.

The same Web page, which goes so far as to offer advice on reducing exposure to VOCs emitted from household products such as paints and certain cleaners, is silent about car cabins. When asked for an explanation, Ryan couldn't offer one and did "not care to speculate."

What can a worried road warrior do if even the EPA doesn't have his back? Because more VOCs are released when the interior heats up, buy a windshield sun blind to help lessen the greenhouse effect (assuming you can handle the geek factor). Along the same lines, roll down the windows and wait for the oven-hot air to dissipate before you slide behind the wheel. In fact, some carmakers, such as BMW, have models that allow you to program an exhaust fan to switch on for pre-cooling/pre-venting. Another simple and inexpensive strategy: Swap the standard cabin air filter for one made with activated charcoal.

Or you could simply hold your breath. You'll be completely safe from the worst that's lurking in your car. As for the danger of passing out in the passing lane, well, that's another matter.

© 2012 Rodale Inc. All rights reserved.

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