Skip to main content

How Toxic Is Your Car?

The "new car smell" that has seeped into the public consciousness is the byproduct of poisonous chemicals used to manufacture automobiles. A new website lists the best and worst cars and urges automakers to make driving safer from the inside.

The "new car smell" that has seeped into the public consciousness is the byproduct of chemicals used to manufacture automobiles. Bromines, lead, chlorine and heavy metals are among the dangerous compounds that make up the plastics, foams and fabrics in cars of all kinds.

Considering that Americans spend on average 1.5 hours in a car every day, the exposure to these chemicals can pose a serious health threat over time., a new website launched by the Ann Arbor-based Ecology Center, has compiled the first-ever consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars. The group studied over 200 of the most popular 2006- and 2007-model vehicles in the U.S., testing for chemicals released from indoor auto parts such as the steering wheel, dashboard, armrests and seats.

While the use of these chemicals is ubiquitous across the auto industry, the group found that some cars are better than others. Across all classes, the car of least concern to the group was the 2007 Chevy Cobalt, while the 2007 Nissan Versa released the most chemicals in this study.

As awareness of the potential dangers of extended exposure to these toxic chemicals has increased worldwide, and especially with the recent passing of the European Union's REACH chemicals legislation, automakers have begun to phase them out. The chemicals of primary concern to the Ecology Center study include: bromine (associated with brominated flame retardants); chlorine (indicating the presence of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC and plasticizers); lead; and heavy metals. These chemicals have been linked to a wide range of health problems such as allergies, birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, and cancer.

"Our findings show that it is not necessary to use toxic chemicals when making indoor auto parts," said Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center's Clean Car Campaign Director. "There is no excuse for manufacturers not to replace these hazardous chemicals with safe alternatives immediately."

To sample the vehicles, experts at the Ecology Center used a portable X-Ray Fluorescence device, which identifies the elemental composition of any material in less than 60 seconds. In each vehicle 15 different components were sampled including: steering wheel, shift knob, armrest/center console, dashboard, headliner, carpet, seat front, seat back, seat base, hard door trim, soft door trim, body sealer, wiring, window seal and wheel weights. Components sampled were those most likely to be touched or otherwise contribute to human exposure.

While there are numerous substances in vehicles that can lead to health and environmental problems, selected those with known toxicity, persistence, and tendency to build up in people and the environment. These chemicals included:

Bromine: Associated with the use of brominated flame retardants, BFRs are added to plastics in order to impart fire resistance, but they are released into the environment over the life of the vehicle. Heat and UV-ray exposure in cars can accelerate the breakdown of these chemicals and possibly increase their toxicity. Some BFRs have been associated with thyroid problems, learning and memory impairment, decreased fertility, behavioral changes, and other health problems.

Chlorine: Associated with the use of polyvinyl chloride, PVC is a widely used type of plastic that is of concern to the environment and public health during all phases of its life cycle. PVC contains chemicals called phthalates, some of which have been associated with decreased fertility, pre-term deliveries, and damage to the liver, testes, thyroid, ovaries, kidneys, and blood. There is also evidence that phthalates can pass from mothers to babies through the placenta and through breast milk.

Lead: Lead is sometimes used as an additive in automotive plastics. Exposure can lead to a number of potential health effects including brain damage, and problems with the kidneys, blood, nerves, and reproductive system. It can also cause learning and behavioral problems.

Other chemicals tested as part of include antimony, arsenic, chromium, cobalt, copper, mercury, nickel and tin. The substances in this category are allergens, carcinogens, or cause other adverse health impacts depending on the concentrations and exposure levels.

Among the cars with the least amount of toxic residues are the 2007 Chevy Cobalt, the 2007 Volvo V50, The 2006 Suzuki Aerio and the 2006 Chrysler PT Cruiser. The cars that scored highest on these chemicals included the 2007 Nissan Versa, the 2006 Scion xB, the 2006 Suzuki Forenza wagon and the 2007 Subaru Forester.

As the results show, no one car company is better than others when it comes to including these chemicals in the manufacture of its vehicles. And the Ecology Center is equally concerned about these cars' effects on the external environment as it is to the cars' internal environment.

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. 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.

"We hope will encourage consumers and manufacturers to pay more attention to the use of toxic chemicals in cars," Gearhart said. "Safe alternatives exist, as proven by the healthier cars found in our study."

The full report and a list of the best and worst cars in each class is availble from

More on this topic