For some, there is nothing sweeter than the smell of a new car. But this smell is usually a mixture of volatile fumes produced by newly made surfaces and furnishings.
Prolonged exposure in high temperatures comes at a cost to those who spend quite a bit of time in a newly released car.
Chinese and US researchers found that levels of a number of cancer-causing chemicals exceeded safe limits in a new car parked outside for 12 days. Formaldehyde, a compound found in disinfectants, germicides and gas stoves, was detected at levels that exceeded China’s national safety standards by 35 percent.
Acetaldehyde, a possible Class II carcinogen, was found in concentrations that exceeded the safe limits by 61%. Benzene, a carcinogen found in paint and cigarettes, has also reached levels that are unsafe for drivers who spend long hours in a car, but not their passengers.
Altogether, the lifetime cancer risk (ILCR) from several VOCs detected inside the new vehicle used in the study was high enough to indicate a “high health risk for drivers”.
In general, an ILCR of 6-10 or lower is considered safe, between 6-10 and 4-10 indicates potential risk, and higher than 4-10 indicates potential health risk.
The field experiment conducted by the researchers indicated that the levels of known and potential carcinogens changed inside a closed car as the weather ranged from sunny to cloudy.
The study estimated exposure of taxi drivers and passengers (who typically spend 11 hours and 1.5 hours in the car each day, respectively) to volatile (or airborne) compounds that can be absorbed through the skin or ingested, although mostly inhaled.
The mid-size SUV used in the experiment was equipped with plastic, imitation leather and woven fabric. When these materials are fresh off the production line, they release a variety of volatile organic compounds into the air, a process known as off-gassing.
The researchers took air samples from the vehicle and used gas chromatography-mass spectrometry to determine the concentrations of 20 chemicals at different points in time. As the car warmed up during the day, the interior temperature fluctuated dramatically from 21°C to 63°C (70°F to 145°F).
The concentrations of volatile chemicals also took a cyclical pattern, which was driven by the surface temperature (rather than the air temperature) inside the vehicle.
Previous research from California showed that even just 20 minutes of driving in a new car can expose people to unsafe amounts of benzene and formaldehyde, with higher health risks for those with longer commutes.
While the results are certainly worth noting, it’s also worth keeping in mind that exposure to chemicals in new cars can be limited by some commonsense measures.
Instead, choose a used car, or use an alternative mode of transportation. And if you can’t avoid the luxury of a car that has a few miles on the clock, maybe skip driving for a walk when you can, and breathe a little easier.