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Do Car Interiors Become Toxic?

Yes–and believe it or not, it’s highest in toxicity level when it’s brand new and when it’s summer. That new car smell is actually a post-production residue, and they wear off in time. They never disappear completely, though. They’re just “offgassing” — or releasing the chemicals in a slower way. And then summer comes. Once they get hot, the ultraviolet rays from the sun stir up some of those toxic chemicals and fumes again, speeding up their release once more.

That’s not to say it’s relatively safe in-between. According to Jeff Gearhart, Research Director at the Ecology Center: “Automobiles function as chemical reactors, creating one of the most hazardous environments we spend time in.”

Toxic chemicals

Research shows there are around  275 possible contaminants in an average vehicle,  with 50 contaminants the most toxic. Vinyl, the cheap plastic-like upholstery material, is one of the very worst, and so are flame retardants and formaldehyde which can be found on the car’s dashboard, armrests, and door handles. Other chemicals like bromine (associated with brominated flame retardants, or BFRs); chlorine (indicating the presence of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC and plasticizers); lead; and heavy metals can lead to a “wide range of health problems such as allergies, birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, and cancer.”

And we haven’t even broached the subject about plastics, yet. These are common materials that can be quite dangerous when they reach a certain temperature. For instance, when the air temperatures reaches 192°F and the dashboard temperatures reach up to 248°F, the concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) increase and break other chemicals down into more toxic substances.

Over time, and under worst circumstances, exposure to these chemicals can lead to health problems like central nervous system disorders, hormonal diseases, memory loss,  and even cancer.


The best way to prevent them–particularly off-gassing–is to keep your car well-ventilated and cool. Open your windows and allow fresh air to circulate the interior, so some of those nasty chemicals can come out. Place UV resistant shades on your car’s windows during summer, and try not to open your windows too much. That way, you don’t allow too much sun to come inside the vehicle.

And whenever possible, avoid staying in the car for too long, especially during the summer.

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