Is The “New Car” Smell Bad For Your Health?

It’s an aroma that most of us are quite familiar with. That “new car” smell that we’ve come to expect with a fresh vehicle purchase. It’s memorable, but could it also be harmful? That’s something at least one California lemon law attorney and numerous other experts have wondered, and the answers that have been revealed might surprise you. Read on to learn more!

So What Is The “New Car” Smell?

What we commonly refer to as the “new car” smell is actually a grouping of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds, or VOCs. These sorts of chemicals are common in adhesives, plastics, fabrics, and other components in most modern vehicles, and they emit their smell through the escape of gasses that have been absorbed and trapped within.

Now, it’s true that not all chemicals are harmful to the human body, but when it comes to VOCs, the proverbial cast of characters isn’t one that inspires much hope. Specifically, names like ethylbenzene, formaldehyde, and toluene are of significant concern to those who know, and according to some, these compounds might increase the risk of cancer in humans.

“New Car” Smell Causes Cancer?

According to this study, published in Environmental International in April of 2021, the inhalation of benzenes and formaldehyde “may be associated with increased cancer risk.” While it was already known that these chemicals had a link to cancer risks when present in indoor environments, their effects in commuter vehicles was largely unknown:

“Although the risk associated with Prop 65-listed chemicals within indoor environments is well characterized (Ali, 2019, Ao et al., 2019, Zhou et al., 2019), there is limited information on the risk that these chemicals within vehicle interiors pose as a function of commute time.”

What researchers found was that these cancer-causing chemicals existed in significant quantities within automobiles, and benzenes and formaldehyde, in particular, posed the greatest risks of cancer development, but exposure times also played a role:

“Out of the five different Prop 65-listed chemicals assessed in this study, benzene and formaldehyde were the only two chemicals with estimated %RfDs exceeding 100…none of the commute times associated with the minimum or 5th percentile of the exposure distribution resulted in a %RfD that exceeded 100, suggesting that, if a commuter is on the lower end of the exposure spectrum, the daily dose will not exceed safe harbor levels.”

So, what does this mean for motorists, in practical terms? First off, while the risk of cancer does seem to be present, it is not a certainty, and there may be ways to help mitigate the danger. Limiting drive times is one precaution you can take, and when you do detect that new car smell, you might also try cracking the windows to freshen up the air you’re breathing.

In spite of potential mitigations you might make, however, the ultimate responsibility for potential cancer risks should probably fall to vehicle manufacturers. It will take a concerted effort on the part of manufacturers to start introducing new construction materials into their automobiles, and help control the risk presented to motorists—especially those with long commutes as they are particularly vulnerable.

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