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That 'New Car' Smell

By: Helena Stratford - Updated: 11 Nov 2014 | comments*Discuss
New Car Smell Plastic Car Interior

We all know it – that ‘new car’ smell that exudes safety, comfort, and luxury. Indeed, manufacturers have even produced air fresheners which mimic this smell so that we can reproduce it long after its first flush has faded.

Well its time to wake up and smell the roses – not the car!

Nice Car – Shame About The Scent

Far from keeping us safe and comfortable, that new car scent is poisoning us. The smell is from solvents evaporating from plastics and can cause headaches, dizziness, nausea, and even drowsiness; not a good thing to feel when driving!

A two-year study orchestrated by the Australian government found that toxic emissions could be so potent as to take effect within minutes of being seated in a new car and expose those in the vehicle to dangerous levels of toxins.

One of the chemicals, benzene, a carcinogen, was found in one instance, at levels five times those recommended for safety.

A Car As Chemical Capsule

The indoor air in our homes can be up to five times more polluted than that outdoors due to the amount of chemicals being exuded by things such as our electronic gadgets, flame-resistant furniture, household cleaning products and so on.

Many of the same chemicals can also be found within a car atmosphere, and yet they are in a much smaller, sealed, and compact space. In addition, the large window area in cars leaves it subject to being easily heated and thus allowing the chemicals to become much more volatile.

Chemicals Hazardous To Health

One new car – a Toyota Prius - which underwent laboratory tests in 2006 to measure its air quality, was found to contain more than sixty airborne chemicals (as opposed to 25 in the control test).

Among the chemicals measured and which are known to be hazardous to health, were toluene (causes nausea and kidney damage), xylenes (solvents which can cause difficulty in breathing and headaches), brominated flame retardants (which are thought to be hormone disrupters as well as being damaging to kidneys and liver) and various plasticisers or phthalates also widely believed to affect the endocrine system, amongst other associated disorders.

Chemicals which are also very widespread and which contribute to the toxins given off by new cars are latex, a classic allergen, cancer-causing formaldehyde and benzene, another carcinogen.


Unfortunately, although certain toxic chemicals, such as some types of phthalates, have been banned for use in products for children under three, there is no such restriction for exposure to adults in this country.

In contrast, Sweden and Japan have taken measures to reduce their use, with the big Japanese car giants making moves to cut 13 toxic chemicals after finding that levels were several times higher in car interiors than their stringent air-quality limits allowed.

The Best And Worst Of Toxic Interiors

On investigation, The Ecology Centre this year found improvements made by car manufacturers in tackling the issue of toxic off-gassing in new vehicles. They deem cars to be less poisonous than they were but a long way off being toxin-free. One of the additional problems being faced is that some of these chemicals bio-accumulate in the environment meaning that they persist in the atmosphere long after their initial product ‘use’.

The least toxic car which the Ecology Centre tested was the Acura RDX SH sports utility as well as three Smart cars. However, worst of the bunch was the BMW 120i and Volkswagen Beetle convertibles.

Recommendations For New Car Owners

  • Avoid long journeys in a brand new car if possible.
  • Keep the car well ventilated for the first six moths of use.
  • Park in the shade (sunshine makes the chemicals more volatile with heat).
  • Do not use chemical air fresheners – they will just compound the problem.

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Share Your Story, Join the Discussion or Seek Advice..
@boots. I find white vinegar is great for removing smells from plastic containers in the house. You can get it in a spray bottle. I also use this on my car dashboard and door trims...not sure whether it helps get rid of the smell because I've never really noticed one in my car but it's worth a try. Also, you could hang one of those neutralized odour things (they are odourless themselves) in your car. They have something like charcoal that absorbs smells I think.
peter rabbit - 11-Nov-14 @ 11:30 AM
Just bought 10reg Vauxhall Corsa that has a really overpowering plastic smell. I'm told this is due to recycled plastics used in interior trim and mouldings. Is there anything I can do to reduce or rid this highly obnoxious smell ? HELP WANTED PLEASE.
boots - 9-Nov-14 @ 8:19 PM
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