Bet You Like The Smell But Never Thought It Could Harm You

…would you believe we’re talking about the inside of your new car? 

…read on

This month Richard and I replaced our ten-year-old vehicle with a new one. Wow! The safety features on this new car are wonderful: rear, front and side view cameras, blind spot warnings, lane keeping and parking assistance, none of which were on our previous car that was state-of-the-art . . .  when we bought it in 2007. I’m trying to imagine the automobile advances that might occur in the next ten years. (Self-driving cars are here already. Flying cars? Amphibious?)

I remember being an excited teenager when our 1951 Mercury came with automatic turn signals. Prior to that, my father had to use hand signals with the window down to signal turns and stops, signals we had to prove we knew to pass a driver license test. Seat belts were just an option in the 1950s, becoming standard only in 1964, and made mandatory in 1968. Today, if I’m not wearing a seatbelt, I feel sort of “naked”, even in the back seat.

On top of all the safety features of today’s new cars, there’s that “new car smell” many of us find so appealing . . . . But WAIT! Our new car has practically no new car smell, less even than our old one did when we sold it.  WHY?  Well, “new-car-smell” is mostly volatile organic compounds (VOC) coming from the foam lamination on the seat surface, the plastic on the dash or on the door panel, carpet, adhesives, leather, etc. VOCs are unhealthy air pollutants, so car makers today try to eliminate them as much as possible by using more neutral materials to reduce what is known as “outgassing” (the release of VOCs into a car’s interior). That’s why our new car doesn’t smell like our previous one.

But there are other causes of pollution inside a car.

Regardless of reduced VOCs, pollutant levels inside of a car come from emissions taken in from surrounding vehicles, and other environmental factors. Studies have found that as much as half of the air pollution inside cars comes from the vehicles immediately ahead, especially if they are highly polluting diesel trucks.

In-car pollution levels depend on the amount of traffic, the age of your car, driving speed, ventilation, as well as the type of vehicles driving ahead of you, and other factors. Opening or closing windows and vents can reduce some pollutants, while at the same time increasing others. Using the air conditioner set to use recirculated air can filter out most particulate matter, but not any VOCs.

Things you can do to reduce in-car pollutants

  • Keep a safe distance from vehicles ahead of you, especially diesel trucks.
  • Keep the windows closed when in traffic and the “ventilation button” set to recirculate, especially in tunnels.
  • When driving in light traffic or no traffic, crack a window or two.
  • Properly maintain your car.
  • Don’t use air fresheners or deodorizers. They use chemicals of uncertain safety.
  • Keep interiors clean. Pollutants can combine with dust particles which are then inhaled. Don’t use chemical cleaners. Instead, use a vacuum or a damp microfiber rag to keep the interior clean.
  • Last but not least, avoid smoking.

Wishing you safe driving and clean breathing.