Most of us are familiar with new car smell. It’s the unique, and expensive, aroma of a brand-new car. You can, of course, buy the smell in a bottle, but it’s most common in a new vehicle.
I thought of this when considering what places we are exposed to potentially hazardous air. For many people in an industrial or manufacturing environment, the workplace is a hotspot for dangerous air. But what about driving to work?
When discussing air quality and a commute, the conversation frequently focuses on what our cars put into the atmosphere, but the interior air of your car should be of interest, too. If you think about it, we’re spending long amounts of time trapped in nearly airtight metal boxes full of materials that have been chemically treated. Sounds like a recipe for trouble. Let’s dig into some research, shall we?
Time to Learn Your VOCs!
Searching for information about VOCs in cars is interesting. VOCs are Volatile Organic Compounds, or chemicals found in many products we use every day. These VOCs are released into the air and may, but are not always, noticeable by an odor. A noticeable odor, or lack thereof, is not a good indicator of a health risk.
One thing you’ll find out pretty quick about VOCs is that a lot of vagueness surrounds their effect on human health. “Depends on how much, how long, how often”, etc. Phrases like “may increase some people’s risk”, “several studies suggest”, and the like are common. What’s not vague, at least in my mind, is that some of these chemicals sound scary: benzene, ethylene glycol, formaldehyde, methylene chloride, tetrachloroethylene, toluene, and xylene, among others. And yes, I copied and pasted all that.
Signs of overexposure to VOCs may include irritation of the eyes, nose and throat, headaches, dizziness, and nausea. Chronic exposure, lasting years or more, can lead to cancer and organ damage. Notice how I’m falling into the vague descriptions everyone else uses….
VOCs in New Cars
‘New car smell’ isn’t from one compound, it’s from a bunch of them. As Compound Interest found out, just how many compounds make up the signature smell is apparently a point for debate, with some studies citing 50-60 possible sources, while others state that over 100 different chemicals are to blame. Sheesh. And to think we pay big money to ride around in boxes with wheels full of potentially hazardous chemicals.
VOCs in Not-so-new Cars
Of course, toxic chemicals aren’t limited to new cars. Older cars have them too. Every time you bring in one of those tree-shaped air fresheners, you’re basically dragging a chemical bomb into your car. Like to keep the interior of your ride spic-and-span? Those cleaners, sprays, and treated wipes you use are loaded with potentially hazardous chemicals, too.
What Can I Do?
- Ventilate as much as possible. Set the heat or air system so that it lets in fresh air from outside. Or roll the windows down if it’s nice outside. The ‘new car smell’ fades over time, and it would only seem reasonable that the more ventilation provided, the faster the levels of VOCs will drop.
- If you’re really concerned, you can even factor VOCs into your decision about what car to purchase in the first place. According to a study a few years ago, manufacturers vary quite a bit in how their new cars perform in a VOC test.
- Avoid bringing in any unnecessary chemicals. My apologies to manufacturers of tree-shaped air fresheners.
- After you clean the interior with any kind of chemical, let the vehicle air out good after cleaning it.
So drive (and breathe) easy on your next commute!