A group that keeps tabs on toxic car chemicals has released a study showing that new cars are improving in terms of the amount of interior toxins they off-gas: What we euphemistically call "new car smell." General Motors, Mazda and Nissan showed the greatest improvements over the inaugural year of the survey, according to HealthyCar.com. The best performing vehicle this year was the Acura RDX, which scored a 0.6 on their incomprehensible 10-point scale. It wasn't all coming up roses, as there are still many vehicles emitting that oh-so-pleasing and apparently oh-so-toxic smell.
The 2009 Mitsubishi Eclipse GT Spyder tops the list of cars that still cause serious concern, though we could have told you were concerned about Eclipse GT buyers before the study. Full details and list below.
Acura RDX and Smart Pure Rank As Least Toxic Cars; GM Most Improved American Manufacturer
(Tuesday, July 22, 2008 - Ann Arbor, MI) - Today the Ecology Center released the 2nd annual consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars and children's car seats at www.HealthyCar.org. Over 200 of the most popular 2008- and 2009-model vehicles and over 60 children's car seats were tested for chemicals that off-gas from parts such as the steering wheel, dashboard, armrests, seats, and carpet. These chemicals become part of the air we breathe, contributing to "new car smell" and a variety of acute and long-term health concerns. Since the average American spends more than 1.5 hours in a car every day, toxic chemical exposure inside vehicles is a major source of potential indoor air pollution. Children are the most vulnerable population since their systems are still developing.
"More and more consumers are concerned about the issue of toxic chemicals in commonly used products - especially products related to children," said Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center's Clean Car Campaign Director. "While the best car and child car seat manufacturers are starting to pay attention, far too many companies have not yet phased out these dangerous chemicals."
Overall, several auto manufacturers showed improvement over last year's findings, including Mazda, General Motors and Nissan. General Motors, whose average vehicle ranking improved by 27%, showed the most improvement of the domestic automakers. Average child car seat scores improved by 28% overall, proving that toxic chemicals are not required for the manufacturing of child car seats and interior automobile components. Best and worst picks for 2008 vehicles and car seats are listed above and below, respectively.
Given escalating fuel prices, this year's rankings are also cross-referenced with fuel economy figures, allowing consumers to find both healthy and fuel efficient vehicles. Anyone looking to buy a new car or child car seat can visit www.HealthyCar.org and search by model, or comparison shop between different models. For the first time, consumers are able to access product ratings using mobile devices with SMS texting and a mobile device optimized web site: Mobile.HealthyCar.org.
Last year the Ecology Center's HealthyCar.org research found the most toxic vehicles were the Nissan Versa, Chevy Aveo, Scion xB 5dr and the Kia Rio. The least toxic vehicles were the Chevy Cobalt, Chrysler PT Cruiser, Honda Odyssey and the Volvo V50.
The law regulating chemicals in commerce, the Toxic Substance Control Act (TSCA), is 30 years old and needs an overhaul. Visitors to HealthyCar.org are encouraged to contact U.S. Senator Barbara Boxer (CA), Chair of the Senate Committee on Environment & Public Works, and U.S. Representative John Dingell (MI), Chair of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, and ask for oversight hearings on re-writing TSCA. HealthyCar.org is asking for complete health and safety testing on chemicals used in products and industry before they are put on the market, and to promote innovation for safer alternatives.
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.
While there are numerous substances in vehicles that can lead to health and environmental problems, HealthyCar.org selected those with known toxicity, persistence, and tendency to build up in people and the environment. These chemicals included:
Bromine: Associated with the use of brominated flame retardants, BFRs are added to plastics in order to impart fire resistance, but they are released into the environment over the life of the vehicle. Heat and UV-ray exposure in cars can accelerate the breakdown of these chemicals and possibly increase their toxicity. Some BFRs have been associated with thyroid problems, learning and memory impairment, decreased fertility, behavioral changes, and other health problems.
Chlorine: Associated with the use of polyvinyl chloride, PVC is a widely used type of plastic that is of concern to the environment and public health during all phases of its life cycle. PVC often contains chemicals called phthalates, some of which have been associated with decreased fertility, pre-term deliveries, and damage to the liver, testes, thyroid, ovaries, kidneys, and blood. There is also evidence that phthalates can pass from mothers to babies through the placenta and through breast milk.
Lead: Lead is sometimes used as an additive in automotive plastics. Exposure can lead to a number of potential health effects including brain damage, and problems with the kidneys, blood, nerves, and reproductive system. It can also cause learning and behavioral problems.
Other: Other chemicals tested as part of healthycar.org include antimony, arsenic, chromium, cobalt, copper, mercury, nickel and tin. The substances in this category are allergens, carcinogens, or cause other adverse health impacts depending on the concentrations and exposure levels.
The same chemicals that cause human health issues can also cause problems in the environment. When vehicles are discarded at the end of their life, the majority of plastic and other non-metallic parts are shredded and put in landfills or burned in incinerators. When discarded in landfills, harmful chemicals contained in vehicle plastics can leach out and contaminate soil and water. When incinerated, toxic chemicals are dispersed throughout the atmosphere.