New Car Smell

What exactly is a “new car” smell? Come on. You know what it is –it’s that familiar, exciting, even nostalgic smell you remember when you were a kid and your Dad comes home in a new car. Or now that you’re old enough to drive one off the lot, that somewhat inviting smell sure made you happy. And then when it fades, and indeed it does, you get kind of bummed out because somehow the car doesn’t seem so “new” anymore. Then, you could go out and buy one of those little paper air fresheners that hang off your rearview mirror. Or, for about $10, you can give your car a little spritz every once in a while so you can “capture that new car smell.”

Well, that smell, that relaxing, pleasant scent –well, you might as well be sniffing glue. We have been literally getting high off this stuff. How could something like this be so….good? According to the environmental watchdog group, the Ecology Center, you really should be careful. The group, based in Ann Arbor, MI, has just released its 2nd Annual Guide to Toxic Chemicals in Cars and Children’s Car Seats. And the news isn’t pretty, especially to those of us who on average spend 1.5 hours a day in our cars. (That alone is kinda sad.)

In any case, the report surveys over 200 popular 2008 and 2009-model year cars and checked for chemicals that off –gas from basic interior features such as steering wheels, seats, dashboards and carpets. What, you didn’t know that you were being exposed to some vicious chemicals as you sped around in your new Bimmer 335i or that sleek Audi A5 that seems to be one of the hottest cars in showrooms right now? I guess it’s hard to even think about such sobering facts when you’re too busy checking yourself in the mirror to admire your flossin’ ways.

For those who do care to read more about all this chemical stuff, the folks at the Ecology Center are eager to scare you right off the bat:

Chemicals of primary concern include: bromine (associated with brominated flame retardants); chlorine (indicating the presence of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC and phthalates); lead; and heavy metals. Such chemicals have been linked to a wide range of health problems such as allergies, birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, and cancer.

Ugh. What a downer. They also explain just how they carry out their rigorous though grim studies. They pretty much get all CSI on us:

To sample the vehicles and car seats, experts at the Ecology Center used a portable X-Ray Fluorescence (XRF) device, which identifies the elemental composition of any material in less than 60 seconds. In each vehicle 11 different components were sampled including: steering wheel, shift knob, armrest/center console, dashboard, headliner, carpet, seat front, seat back, seat base, hard door trim and soft door trim. Components sampled were those most likely to be touched or otherwise contribute to human exposure. For car seats, seat bases, clips, EPS foam, shades, trim, and/or arm rests were tested.

And now for the good stuff –the list of the best and worst cars based on all this extensive testing. It’s an eclectic bunch and there’s nothing really in common here –except, well, these friggin’ sets of wheels may give you tumors someday! Who knew?

Best and Worst Cars

I’m not entirely sure how the Ecology Center devises its 5-point scale or how, for example, a BMW 128i convertible –the sick, new 1-series that just came out—can be toxic when its high-class sister, the M5, has a “good” chemical rating. The homely Kia Rondo, easily one of the butt-ugliest cars out there is probably dangerous because of its interior festival of cheap, misshapen plastics.

But if this is the case, why aren’t other dowdy runts, like the many Korean or Japanese sub-compacts listed here? It’s also hard to see how we can go from the Kia that barely costs $16K to a tricked-out Lincoln Navigator that can cost $50K or more. And even my own Beetle is there! Funny, I do remember my new car smell when I drove it home one summer night. But I had the moonroof down –not the top—so I was probably letting that smell out as well –offgassing, as it were. For all I know, I would think that this Beetle, which is a convertible, would do the same and maybe make it safer. I’m confused.

What are we supposed to do? Open all the windows when we drive? Not use the AC? (More chemicals!) Freshen it up with Febreze? (Works in my living room!) Are we supposed to demand that our cars not have these dangerous smells when we buy our cars? When will we simply accept that a lot that is around us is plainly dangerous for us? I wonder if it’s just best for us to just get back in our cars and wait the next nasty report, or see if in fact the Ecology Center (www.healthycar.org) manages to get Congress to push for safer cars, and make the auto manufacturers take notice. Let’s see: those same auto makers just want to sell you anything right about now.

[Via Jalopnik]

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