Ever take a whiff of that new car smell and wonder what it is exactly that you’re smelling? It is, according to HealthyStuff.org, the smell of toxic chemicals used in production off-gassing from the dashboard, seating, vehicle trim, and other interior auto parts.
The new car smell may be the biggest hint that vehicles can be toxic, but there are plenty of other nasty chemicals potentially lurking in your vehicle, including brominated flame retardants (they affect developing brains and reproductive systems), polyvinyl chloride (a carcinogenic type of plastic), and plastic additives like benzene (associated with leukemia). HealthyStuff.org released this week its annual ranking of the most and least toxic vehicles on the market. The results might surprise you.
HealthyStuff.org surveyed the vehicles using a portable x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer, which detects chemical elements close to a product’s surface, where they’re mostly likely to come in contact with drivers and passengers. The organization tested 204 new 2011-2012 models for the rankings.
First, the good news. On the whole, PVC use in vehicles is declining rapidly. In 2006, 0% of vehicles tested had PVC-free interiors. But since then, a total of 103 cars have tested PVC-free. This year, 17% of vehicles tested were free of the plastic, which can be replaced with less toxic polyurethanes and polyolefins. BFR use is also on the decline, with just 40% of vehicles tested this year containing the chemical.
This doesn’t mean that all cars are created equal. The rankings above reveal the most and least toxic new vehicles on the market based on levels of bromine, chlorine, lead and other chemicals (cars are rated on a scale of 1 to 5, with 5 being the most toxic). The top 10 least toxic list is filled with just a handful of brands: Smart, Toyota, Acura, Honda, and Audi. The most toxic list contains a cross-section of brands, with Kia, Chrysler, and Mitsubishi scoring the worst.
Some automakers have made a clear commitment to change. Average ratings of Volkswagen cars improved 42% in the past year. Mitsubishi cars improved 38%, and Ford climbed 30%.
For a general rule of thumb, stick with vehicles assembled in Asia to avoid PVC, but go with European cars to avoid BFR. Pick your poison, literally. North America doesn’t provide much incentive for companies to phase out toxic chemicals (and there are minimal regulations), so U.S. vehicles often contain the most hazards.
Click here for the full list of tested vehicles. And the next time you’re in the market for a car, consider adding "minimal toxicity" to the list of qualities you’re looking for—right there alongside performance and fuel efficiency.