That "new car smell" in vehicles carries more than just an appealing scent. It's evidence of off-gassing from chemicals in the dashboard and other parts.
To sniff out which new vehicles have the most or least chemicals present, the Ecology Center tested 204 popular 2011 and 2012 model year vehicles.
The Ecology Center looked for chemicals that off-gas from steering wheels, dashboards, seats and other interior components that drivers and passengers are commonly around and touch. In particular, it tested for bromine (found in brominated flame retardants), chlorine (evidence of PVC and plasticizers), lead and heavy metal, which have all been connected to various health issues like allergies, birth defects, learning disabilities and cancer.
The best score went to the Honda Civic, which is free of bromine and PVC in interiors, and has low levels of heavy metals. It's followed by the Toyota Prius and Honda CR-Z at the top of the list.
The worst score went to Mitsubishi Outlander Sport, which contains bromine and antimony-based flame retardants in some interior parts, chromium-treated leather and more than 400 parts per million of lead in seats. Other poor scorers are the Chrysler 200 SC and Kia Soul.
Overall, vehicle ratings given by the Ecology Center have gone up, with 17 percent of new vehicles being made without PVC in interiors -- all pre-2006 vehicles tested contained PVC -- and 60 percent are free of brominated flame retardants.
Of the cars tested, 40 were found to have low levels of chemicals, two had high levels and the rest were had medium levels.
The Ecology Center said that off-gassing chemicals are a particular concern for people who drive long periods of time, noting that the average American spends more than one and a half hours in a car each day. Along with the chemicals that the Ecology Center tests for, more than 270 other chemicals have been found in car interiors. In addition, high temperatures can increase concentrations of volatile organic compounds and break some chemicals down, making them more toxic.
This round of testing represents the Ann Arbor, Mich.,-based Ecology Center's fourth consumer guide for cars, published at HealthyStuff.org, a repository of information on toxic in toys, pet items, car seats, handbags and more.