Ask Umbra on that new-car smell
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Q. Dear Umbra,
I have an old and dying Cash for Clunker-eligible SUV with well over 210,000 miles on it … My problem is I find the VOC offgassing of new cars intolerable. Is there any way to offgas a new car before I drive it so that I am not inhaling that not so healthy “new-car” smell?
A. Dearest Alli,
Either you or I or both of us are a little behind the times, as the Cash for Clunkers program ran out of money and ended on August 24. A new program called the Dealership Funded Cash for Clunkers Program is trying to pick up where the federal program left off. But the dealership funded program has no mileage requirements, and the used cars will not be destroyed. It seems more like a “let’s keep this car sales thing going” project than a mileage improvement program. (The mascot is either a frog or Gollum — you decide.)
If and when you do buy a new car instead of a used one, you will need to deal with some amount of offgassing fumes. Car interiors are constructed from metals, plastics, adhesives, cloth, and sometimes leather. A few tests have indicated that the new car smell in some part consists of unpleasant and unhealthy chemicals wandering out of these interior materials, including toluene and xylenes. Then, of course, there are the ones that have no odor and simply give us a special feeling inside, like phthalates. The dust settling on our dashboard also contains dubious matter.
Hence it is probably best if we all give new cars a daily airing for the first few months. Keep your windows down when you drive, and leave them open a crack when your car is parked, if that’s practical. When you use the vents, choose fresh air rather than recirculated. Other suggestions beyond good ventilation include using solar reflectors and avoiding parking in the sun, since exposure to UV rays hastens the breakdown of these chemicals. (Of course, if hastening is your goal, I suppose you could park in the sun intentionally, bake your car, then leave your windows open and not drive for the six months or so it takes for new-car fumes to dissipate — but this seems a bit deranged.) Some people also swear by using charcoal to absorb the odor.
The easiest solution would be to buy a used car whose fumes were inhaled by a previous owner, or to own no car — you could make every day car-free day! If you do buy new, you might investigate companies that have made a commitment to using fewer toxic chemicals in their auto interiors. Volvo has made a name for itself in this area. Honda is also a leader. To find more information on the interior threats of your car of choice, visit HealthyStuff.org — but please, please remember that the most important factor in your car purchase should be fuel efficiency.
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