Whiff of danger in that chemical romance

3 minute read

Buying a brand new car could be a hazard to your health.

It’s possibly more of a “guy thing”, but there’s folks out there who are intoxicated by the smell of the interior of a new car.

The heady aroma of plasticky chemicals wafting off the dashboard of a brand spanking automobile is reputed to make one quite giddy.

We say “reputed” here because your Back Page scribbler has zero personal experience of this sensation, being both anosmic and a modestly remunerated tightarse who prefers his four wheels to cost as little as possible.      

As it transpires, being a cheapskate may have its advantages on the health front as well.

A new international study, published this week in the journal, Cell Reports Physical Science, has added to a growing body of research suggesting those new car chemicals, such as formaldehyde and acetaldehyde, could be increasing the drivers’ risk of developing cancer. 

Moreover, this particular study used all kinds of complicated mathematics, which your correspondent does not even pretend to understand, to show that previous studies may have been underestimating both the volume and the potential health threat posed by these volatile organic compounds.

In this research, scientists from China’s Institute of Technology and Harvard University in the US, measured chemical emissions inside the cabin of a new car that was parked outside for 12 days and exposed to a variety of weather conditions. The strategy was to create an environment which mirrored real-life conditions compared with the more temperature-controlled testing use in earlier studies.

What they found was the key factor affecting the volume of volatile chemicals in the car was the surface temperature of the materials in the vehicle, in this instance a new mid-size SUV plug-in hybrid electric vehicle with main cabin materials including plastic, imitation leather and woven cloth and felt.

The boffins said previous studies, which had focused only on the air temperature within the car cabin, were not painting the full picture of the chemical exposure. 

And the fuller picture is not a pretty one.

Turns out the levels of those carcinogenic chemicals were at levels significantly beyond China’s national standard for air quality in passenger cars, with formaldehyde nearly 35% higher than the recommended limit and acetaldehyde a whopping 60.5% over the limit.

This, the researchers said, could pose a high health risk for drivers over the longer term, although they fell short of quantifying the extent of that increased risk.

“This work is of importance for vehicle designers in selecting appropriate materials to meet environmental standards and improve in-cabin air quality,” the authors told media.

In the meantime, drivers of clapped-out Toyotas can finally feel just a little smug when parking next to those gleaming new giant SUVs that hog all the space in the Coles carpark.

An even better way to feel smug is to send story tips to penny@medicalrepublic.com.au.

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