NOTICE HOW WADS of crisp, newly printed P1,000 bills or the interior of a brand new car emit certain odors that make you giddy with delight?
The scent of clean, new money is a wonderful “pick-me-up” caused by chemicals in the special inks used in printing these bills. You could literally call the effect produced by these inks “a million peso high.”
The odor emitted by the interior of a brand new car, on the other hand, comes from the many chemical compounds used to make practically everything inside the passenger compartment.
Those chemicals, baked by the heat inside the closed compartment, produce that distinctive “new car smell” that assaults your senses once you open the car door. You could also describe the effect as a “million peso high” since many new cars in this country cost over a million pesos.
Unlike the harmless giddiness produced by money, however, that “new car smell” comes from toxic gases—and could be dangerous to your health.
PBDEs and phthalates
In 2006, a groundbreaking study released by The Ecology Center showed that interiors of cars and other motor vehicles contain dangerous levels of toxic chemicals. The Ecology Center is a membership-based, nonprofit environmental organization based in Ann Arbor, Michigan that keeps tabs on toxic car chemicals.
Its 2006 report entitled, "Toxic At Any Speed: Chemicals in Cars and the Need for Safe Alternatives," reveals that many materials producing that “new car smell” are made from toxic chemicals known to pose major public health risks.
Car interiors are made from different kinds of plastics or “plasticized” leather. According to health experts, these plastics constantly emit toxins vaporized from the different plastic components in the car’s interior.
New cars carry 250 pounds of plastic on average. Most of these plastics are used in arm rests, door panels, steering wheels, dashboards, interior seat cushions and switches.
This toxic chemical climate in automobile interiors is normally caused by “PBDEs,” (chemicals used as fire retardants) and “phthalates,” (or phthalic acid esters, which are chemicals used to soften PVC plastics). The study found PBDEs and phthalates in dangerous amounts in dust and windshield film samples.
PBDEs or Polybrominated diphenyl ethers are organobromine compounds used as flame retardants. The European Union has banned the use of PBDEs and polybrominated biphenyls (PBBs) in electric and electronic devices out of health concerns.
PBDEs and phthalates are considered volatile organic compounds (VOCs). These are carbon-based chemicals that can evaporate into the air under the right conditions such as high temperatures caused by sunlight.
The most prevalent VOCs found in new cars are benzene (a human carcinogen); ethylbenzene (a systemic toxic agent) and acetone (a mucosal irritant).
The Ecology Center described cars as “chemical reactors” that release toxins in a process called “off-gassing.” It said PBDE, phthalates and other chemicals are inhaled or ingested by drivers and passengers through dust and air, potentially causing allergic or other acute reactions, and long-term health problems such as birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity and cancer.
Off-gassing is triggered by high interior temperatures caused by sunlight, a process that accelerates in cars parked under the sun. The combination of higher temperatures caused by windshields and windows, and UV exposure from sunlight can cause PBDEs in cars to become up to five times more dangerous than in homes and offices.
The study also showed significantly higher levels of PBDEs in vehicles studied compared to levels in homes and offices measured in previous studies, making “in-car pollution” a major source of indoor air pollution.
The study said toxic chemical exposure inside vehicles is a major source of potential indoor air pollution since the average American spends about 1.5 hours in a car everyday. Children are the most vulnerable to off-gassing.
U.S. automakers, however, believe that chemicals such as the PBDE flame retardants are needed to protect people in crashes. They claim these chemicals have been shown not to pose a risk to occupants.
The Ecology Center’s website at www.healthycar.org provides a wealth of information about the dangers of off-gassing. HealthyCar.org tested some 450 of the most popular vehicle models in the U.S. from 2006-2009.
It noted that two car makers had made significant improvements since the original findings and had joined another company as the three leaders in using “safe” plastics for indoor auto parts. The trio also widely uses bio-based materials; is improving interior air quality and reducing PVC use.
One maker developed an eco-plastic made from sugar cane or corn and is building a pilot plant to produce it. Another is developing a soy-based foam and a bio-fabric for its car seats.
Japanese car makers, however, became the first to set an industry-wide goal of reducing VOCs in passenger compartments. They agreed to cut levels of 13 VOCs (including styrene and formaldehyde) to match Japanese requirements for homes.
A separate study on VOCs, PBDEs and phthalates conducted by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) discovered extremely high levels of these substances in new cars.
It found that total VOC levels were very high in two locally made cars that reached the market one to two months after manufacture. These levels decreased some seven-fold in the first month, but still exceeded Australia’s National Health and Medical Research Council indoor air standard.
While there is no comparable study in the Philippines, it is probably safe to assume that Filipino drivers and passengers face the same dangers from off-gassing as do their American and Australian counterparts.
One must remember, however, that exposure to VOCs, PBDEs and phthalates does not automatically mean one will get sick.
Among the many factors that determine if new car owners and their passengers may become ill from off-gassing include exposure to one or more individual VOCs or VOC combinations that create another compound; length of time of exposure and personal characteristics such as age and general health status.
Tips for a healthier car
Filipino car owners will also benefit from these tips on how to minimize the dangers from off-gassing and make their cars healthier:
- Vacuum often;
- Use solar reflectors often;
- Ventilate the car interior often;
- Park in the shade or away from sunlight as much as possible