Anyone who drives an automobile accepts that there’s a chance of being hurt or even killed in an accident while you’re on the road. But how many of us understand that being in a car can also increase your chances of getting cancer?
Unfortunately, it’s true.
The “new car smell” that some people love? It’s a poisonous brew. . .and the toxins are still there even after the smell fades away.
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Research shows that the new car smell consists of potent toxins that off-gas from the materials used to construct a car’s interior. (And some of those toxins may persist in the air inside the car even after the new car smell subsides months or years later.)
The chemicals that are released from the materials used to construct a car’s interior include chromium, brominated flame retardants, lead, formaldehyde, benzene and toluene. Studies show, in fact, there are around 275 inhalable toxins in our automobiles.
These chemicals have been connected not only to cancer but also to hearing problems, kidney difficulties, central nervous system troubles, birth defects, learning impairments, liver dysfunction and more.
This is a topic dear to my heart because I’m extremely sensitive to the gases given out by car interiors. They make me very sick – to the point of being disabled — and three times I’ve had to sell a new car at a loss because of these toxic gases.
Fortunately, a few models exist that are manufactured without the outgassing problem. But it’s hard for me to identify which ones without driving them for a week or so. And there aren’t many dealers who will let you test drive a car for a week!
In a report on these toxins, Jeff Gearheart, research director of the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan, warns: “Since these chemicals are not regulated, consumers have no way of knowing the dangers they face.”1
Prolonged exposure can be harmful
The expert consensus on these chemicals is that the danger mostly ends after a car has been driven for about six months. That’s a long time to be inhaling poison gas! What’s more, the consensus may not be valid: Many people still can suffer problems long after that. For me, a car manufactured with outgassing material is off limits, no matter how old it is.
Reactions to the volatile gases in a car can include vertigo, headaches, severe “brain fog,” sore throats, nausea with vomiting and a variety of allergic reactions. If you have a “mystery medical condition” – cause unknown – then try staying out of your car for a week and see if you feel better.
Mr. Gearheart, whose organization has measured toxins in a wide variety of cars, adds: “People spend over an hour a day in their vehicles on average. Whether it’s adults, children, or pets, we’re concerned about prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals inside the vehicle.”
Research on car interiors at Gearhart’s Ecology Center used an X-ray fluorescence analyzer to identify chemicals that passengers may inhale – these tests revealed the presence of tin, mercury, antimony, arsenic, cadmium and chlorine. The scientists found that toxins were being released from the dashboard, steering wheel, arm rests, door trim, shift knobs and seats.
Adding to the problem, especially in the hot months of summer: When a car is parked in the sun, the interior temperature can climb to over 190 degrees Fahrenheit. That kind of heat accelerates the breakdown of toxins, making a larger quantity of them air-borne, and adds to their concentrations within the car.
Europeans demand changes
One hopeful note in analyzing the chemicals that cars release is the fact that the European Union has taken some important steps in limiting these health-threatening compounds – and the European improvements in regulations have forced car makers to cut back on the volatile compounds off-gassed by their automobiles.
The European rules, called REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization and restriction of Chemical Substances) are designed to keep hazardous toxins out of the environment, limit human exposure and motivate research to develop substitute chemicals that are non-toxic and can be used in cars and other consumer products.2 Reportedly, China is also working on its own regulatory guidelines.3
But so far, the US government has shown little willingness to help mitigate the presence of these toxins.
Of course, another big concern about cars is the exhaust that emerges from their tail pipes. And while it’s no surprise that it contains toxins that are also linked to cancer, it’s striking that for every small increase in your exposure to the tiny particles released by automobiles, your cancer risk goes up significantly.
Studies by the International Agency for Research on Cancer show that if you live in a congested urban area, exhaust from cars and trucks significantly bumps up your chances of dying from cancer.4
During a thirteen-year study, the scientists found that in many cities (compared to less congested areas), these types of pollutants increased the risk of dying from cancer of the upper digestive tract by 42 percent as well as increasing the risk by 35 percent for deaths from cancers of the pancreas, gall bladder, liver and bile ducts. The research involved about 66,000 people who were aged 65 and older when the study began.
Take steps to protect yourself
To protect yourself from the increased cancer risks caused by automobiles, there are a variety of precautions you can take:
- After your car has been parked in the sun on a hot day, open the doors to ventilate the interior before you get in the car.
- Keep the windows cracked when you park the car to release heat and toxins. Also keep them open after you’re in the car. NOTE: Driving with the windows open reduces the problem but it doesn’t get rid of it completely.
- Use a windshield sun shade that sits on your dashboard when you park the car. The shade will moderate the temperature increase inside the car while it is parked. Sun shades on the side windows and the rear window can help, too.
- The Ecology Center recommends wiping down the car’s interior surfaces with a towel made of microfibers to lift off dust. You should also clean the car frequently with a non-toxic cleanser. The dust in your car can contain toxic chemicals. “Chemicals like to hang out in the dust,” Gearhart says.
- Before you buy a car, whether it’s new or used, try it out to see if you react to its chemicals. For me, at least, a feeling of lightheadedness is the first symptom. The longer you can test drive the vehicle the better your chance of detecting a reaction.
- Avoid living in a house located directly on a busy street or intersection. A long list of studies shows that the noise and pollution can compromise your health.5
- It’s preferable to avoid parking your car in a garage that’s attached to your house.6 It increases the air pollution in your house. If you have an attached garage, obviously you shouldn’t leave the car in the garage with the engine running, whether or not the garage door is closed.
When purchasing a vehicle, you can also consult the website of the Ecology Center. They’ve posted tests results of car interiors. Although they have not tested cars since 2012, they note that Hondas have generally had the lowest levels of toxins in car interiors.7
Plus, there’s another benefit to avoiding the types of toxins in cars: Absorption of these chemicals has been linked to adding more body fat and weight gain. So if you walk more and spend less time in a car, along with reducing your cancer risk, you may find it easier to keep your weight down.8