Volvo found to have least toxic car interiors
A first-of-its-kind study recently released by the Ecology
Center revealed new information about toxic chemical
exposure in automobile interiors. PBDEs, used as fire
retardants, and phthalates, used primarily to soften
PVC plastics (and partly responsible for "new car
smell"), were found in dangerous amounts in dust
and windshield film samples. Drivers and passengers
are exposed through inhalation and contact with dust.
These groups of chemicals have been linked to birth
defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, premature
births and early puberty in laboratory animals, among
other serious health problems.
study — Toxic at Any Speed: Chemicals in Cars &
the Need for Safe Alternatives — found that chemicals
used to make seat cushions, armrests, floor coverings,
wire insulation and other interior auto components are
more rapidly released into the air in extreme temperatures.
Since automobiles have 360-degree windows surrounding
the interior, cars can heat up to 190 degrees F. In
addition, UV exposure from parking in the sun creates
a favorable environment for chemical breakdown, causing
PBDE flame retardants to become even more dangerous.
Thus, solar exposure in cars can be 5 times higher than
in homes or offices.
"We can no longer rely just on seatbelts and airbags
to keep us safe in cars," said Jeff Gearhart, the
Ecology Center's Clean Car Campaign Director who co-authored
the report. "Our research shows that autos are
chemical reactors, releasing toxins before we even turn
on the ignition. There are safer alternatives to these
chemicals, and innovative companies that develop them
first will likely be rewarded by consumers."
The Ecology Center collected windshield film and dust
samples from 2000 to 2005 model cars made by 11 leading
auto manufacturers. Volvo was
found to have the lowest levels of phthalates and the
second lowest levels of PBDEs, making it the industry
leader in terms of indoor air quality. Volvo
also has the toughest policies for phasing out these
chemicals. Other manufacturers claim they have eliminated
PBDEs and phthalates from particular applications. For
example, Ford reports that it has eliminated PBDEs from "interior components that customers may come into
contact with." Honda also reports that it has eliminated
most of its phthalate-containing PVC in its vehicles.
Other manufacturers tested include BMW, Chrysler, GM,
Hyundai, Mercedes, Subaru, Toyota and Volkswagen.
Both PBDEs and phthalates are considered chemicals of
concern due to their toxicity and ubiquity in the environment.
Levels of PBDEs found in the breast milk of American
women and some fetuses are approaching levels shown
to impair learning and cause behavioral problems in
These chemicals have also been linked to thyroid
hormone disruption and liver toxicity in animals. One
type of phthalate found in a large variety of polyvinyl
chloride (PVC) products, called DEHP, has been linked
to premature birth, reproductive defects and early onset
puberty in lab animals.
The study found that concentrations of PBDEs in dust
and windshield film samples were up to five times higher
than those found in homes and offices in previous studies.
Since the average American spends more than 1.5 hours
in their car every day breathing in these chemicals,
the inside of a car is a significant source of indoor
air pollution. According to the EPA, indoor air pollution
is currently one of the top five environmental risks
to public health.
"Most people think about cars causing outdoor air
pollution, such as smog," said Gearhart. "Now
we know that breathing the air and dust inside of cars
may be even more dangerous."
In lieu of legislative action at the federal level,
at least 9 U.S. states (California, Hawaii, Illinois,
Maine, Maryland, Michigan, New York, Oregon and Washington)
have passed laws banning the two worst forms of PBDEs,
namely penta and octa. Additional legislation is being
considered in at least 6 other states, as well as revisions
of existing legislation to extend PBDE phase-outs to
all uses of deca form, including automotive.
The new report makes the following recommendations:
For Manufacturers: Manufacturers should reduce
the health risk to vehicle occupants by phasing out
PBDEs and phthalates in auto interior parts, setting
specific timelines for its material and component suppliers.
As an interim step, North American automakers should
voluntarily comply with recent Japanese and European
initiatives that limit air pollutant levels in auto
For Government: Congress and individual states
should encourage rapid action to phase-out the use of
PBDEs and phthalates by requiring phase-out timelines
and providing research and technical assistance to vehicle
manufacturers for assessment and development of alternatives.
Government purchasers should further require disclosure
on the use of these substances in their purchasing specifications.
Voluntary efforts should also be given public recognition.
For Vehicle Occupants: Fortunately, car owners
can take some direct actions to minimize health risks
from PBDEs and phthalates in car interiors. Some of
these actions will also reduce the risks associated
with other interior car pollutants. Drivers can reduce
the rate of release and break-down of these chemicals
by using solar reflectors, ventilating car interiors,
and parking outside of sunlight whenever possible.