Billing it as the first-ever consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars, an advocacy group rated more than 200 models based on interior parts — from steering wheels to armrests — whose chemical components could break down over time.
"These chemicals become part of the air we breathe, contributing to 'new car smell' and a variety of acute and long-term health concerns," the Ecology Center said in announcing the ratings on Tuesday. "Since the average American spends more than 1.5 hours in a car every day, toxic chemical exposure inside vehicles is a major source of potential indoor air pollution."
The American Chemistry Council, representing the chemical industry, noted that the guide does not actually measure any breakdown of chemicals over time. "There's nothing here on exposure, they're just looking at chemical constituents," said spokeswoman Jennifer Killinger.
Nothing in the guide identifies health impacts, or that "the level of exposures are unsafe," she said. Killinger added that in the case of phthalates, chemicals often used in plastics, the Consumer Product Safety Council found little risk, while testing by the Centers for Disease Control has found low levels in humans.
The CDC, however, has also called for additional studies on phthalates given that some animal tests show a possible link to cancer. In addition, the European Union has banned phthalates in the use of toys.
Worst, best picks
The Ecology Center's worst vehicle picks, in order, were: the Nissan Versa, Chevy Aveo, Scion xB wagon, Kia Rio, Suzuki Forenza, Kia Spectra 5, Subaru Forester, Chevy Express, Hyundai Accent and Chevy Silverado.
Its best picks were: the Chevy Cobalt, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Honda Odyssey, Volvo V50, Suzuki Aerio, Acura RDX Tech, BMW X3, Nissan Frontier, Toyota Matrix and Volvo S40.
The United States does not have standards for air quality in vehicles, said the Ecology Center's clean car campaign director, Jeff Gearhart.
"In general, new vehicles have levels of chemicals in the air dust which exceed proposed guideline values and may be hazardous to your health," he added, citing a 2006 study by Japanese scientists.
"The findings demonstrated that the air in the cabin of these cars was contaminated by highconcentrations of a large variety of organiccompound diffusing from the interior materials," the researchers said in the study, published in the journal Indoor and Built Environment.
The Ecology Center noted that some carmakers have begun to phase out toxic chemicals such as bromine, chlorine, lead and heavy metals. "Such chemicals have been linked to a wide range of health problems such as allergies, birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, and cancer," the Ecology Center said.
Gearhart said the sampling showed that car interiors can be safe for one's health. "There is no excuse for manufacturers not to replace these hazardous chemicals with safe alternatives immediately," he said.
Industry challenged earlier report
The American Chemistry Council disagreed that the chemicals as used in vehicle interiors are hazardous, and cited differences with an earlier Ecology Center report claiming that dust inside cars can be toxic.
"Scientists know that the mere presence of a chemical doesn't automatically make it a public health issue," Marian Stanley, who headed a council panel reviewing the report, said in a statement at the time. "It's just plain irresponsible for so-called public health reports to take the mere fact that a substance is present or has been detected in dust and suggest — without addressing the toxicity profile — that this presents a health risk."
The Ecology Center said it sampled the 2006 and 2007 vehicle models using a portable X-Ray Fluorescence device that identifies the basic composition of a material in under a minute.
Fifteen components were sampled based on which were most likely to be touched or otherwise contribute to human exposure.
The Ecology Center added that the same chemicals can also create environmental damage.
"When vehicles are discarded at the end of their life, the majority of plastic and other non-metallic parts are shredded and put in landfills or burned in incinerators," it said. "When discarded in landfills, harmful chemicals contained in vehicle plastics can leach out and contaminate soil and water. When incinerated, toxic chemicals are dispersed throughout the atmosphere."
The full ratings are online at healthycar.org.