Toxic Cabin Interiors: Why That New Car Smell Could Be Pure Poison

Toxic Cabin Interiors: Why That New Car Smell Could Be Pure Poison

It may sound strange, but that “new car smell,” may be making you sick. When the UK based auto publication, Autocar first reported that freshly manufactured automobiles were making people feel ill last autumn, some of us more suspicious types were not a least bit surprised. For years, professional automotive journalists and drivers alike have noted unpleasant aromas and toxic side-effects from the materials that make-up our automobile interiors.

Chemical-rich, and completely unavoidable, these distinct car aromas are but one of many allergens humans are exposed to while riding in automobiles. The only difference here, is that most allergy-inducing substances are organic in nature, whereas today’s topic of discussion is about as man-made as it gets.

Zero-in on Autocar’s findings surrounding the subject of new car interiors, and how they have the potential to make humans sick, and some disturbing trends begin to surface. The report points out eight common substances that are particularly prone to “diffusing” or “off-gassing,” with evidence showing that these toxic fumes continue to expel from surfaces, sometimes even months after assembly.

Tests show that vehicle out-gassing is most prevalent right after the automobile has rolled off the assembly line. This is likely due in part to the fact that many of the materials used to concoct a vehicle’s interior are stored alongside one another, and many times are encased in tight-fitting plastic for protection, which in turn, locks any chemical aromas in with the cabin component.

Car Plastics, VOCs, Allergies, and Your Health

A few years back, CBS News did a bit of digging and came up with some pretty fucking scary statistics, especially in regard to that “new car smell” everyone goes bonkers over. The 2012 report follows a study conducted by researchers at the Ecology Center, where scientists tested more than 200 of the most popular automobiles on the market. Their mission: To identify and trace the source of off-gassing chemicals within automotive interiors, and determine what the worst offenders were, and why.

What scientists found was that the areas where out-gassing was occurring included almost every portion of a car’s interior. From the steering wheel and dashboard, to armrests, headrests seats, and safety restraints, if it was man-made, chances are it was out-gassing noxious chemicals. All told, researchers found more than 275 different chemicals floating within these new car cabins, some of which bordered on being labeled as lethal.

Granted, many of the smells encountered within a new automobile are completely benign, and are more of a notable aroma than a health issue. That said, these aromas are often accompanied by far more hazardous chemicals, like VOCs. Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are probably the most recognizable evildoer in the world of hazardous inhalants. Some of the more commonplace poisonous compounds beneath this category include: acetaldehyde, acrolein, benzene, ethylbenzene, formaldehyde, styrene, toluene, and xylene.

While many of these dangerous substances have been identified as having an “adverse effect on occupants,” The Drive reports that, “VOCs can cause symptoms in humans like nausea, headaches, itchy eyes-basically, an allergic reaction.”

Some of the common chemicals found in new car interiors border on being labeled as “disconcerting,” especially when considering human health. Some of these include bromine, a core component found in brominated flame retardants (BFRs), which automakers infuse in plastics to make them less flammable. Researchers say that “BFR exposure has been tied to thyroid problems, learning and memory impairment, decreased fertility, and behavioral changes.”

Another risky substance is the chlorine that is used in polyvinyl chloride (PVC) plastics. These PVCs, and the phthalates they contain, have been linked to everything from decreased fertility and liver problems, to testicular, thyroid, ovarian, kidney, and blood abnormalities.

Quick Nerd Note: Ford made headlines in July 2017 for "counting on a team of recruits to its Chinese research labs... 18 smell testers, or so-called 'Golden Noses,' charged with making sure new cars don't smell bad," Quartz media said. "That's because Chinese car buyers are particularly sensitive to the smell of their new cars. They place unpleasant smells ahead of engine performance or safety as their top reason for not buying a new car." These smell testers assess the odor of every item in the car, from floor carpets to the steering wheel, rejecting any that may offend a Chinese buyer, Quartz noted.

What’s With That Nasty New Car Smell?

But hazardous out-gassing from cabin materials isn’t the only aromatic issue new car buyers have to contend with after taking ownership of their fresh whip. Stinky smells are also a concern, for while they may not pose a major health concern, they sure as hell are offensive to one’s nostrils.

Sure, you can always crack a window, or swap in a more hardcore cabin air filter. But when a nasty new car smells refuses to go away you are left with two options. Either roll around with the windows down all the damn time, and hope that the smell will eventually disappear, or take the vehicle back to the dealer and ask for a fix.

This is precisely what happened in 2020, when a series of reports from, found that its brand-new Hyundai Palisade test mule came with a lot more than just the usual add-ons one might expect in a “Limited” model. According to the investigation, which the staff humorously referred to as CSI, or “Car Smell Investigation,” the brand-new SUV came loaded with features, including the “fresh aroma of used gym socks, body odor, onions, and rank garlic.”

"It takes heat and sitting with the windows up for the smell to reach George Clinton-level funkiness, which we suspect might be slowly releasing from the seats.”

Eventually, a team of Hyundai "investigators" discovered the source of the smell, which was emanating from the head restraints. Apparently, an imitation leather material had suffered from what the manufacturer labeled as “a flaw in the manufacturing process.” This inconsistency resulted in certain Limited and Calligraphy models having an awful aroma, while lower class trims remained devoid of the stench due to their cloth seating surfaces.

However, unlike new-car smells, this stench refused to fade, with certain Palisade buyers reporting that it actually grew more fetid over time. For the team at, no amount of air purifying, odor eliminating air freshener, or cleaning and praying would remove the odor. So if your freshly purchased vehicle smells stank, bring that machine back to the dealership and tell them to fix it stat, because you never know what noxious fumes may be embedded within that stench.

Car Sick? More Like Chemical Inhalation Poisoning

You aren’t the only one at risk of getting sick from “fresh” automotive aromas. According to reports, way back in 2005, South Korea’s Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport surveyed 800 new car buyers, and found that 51.5% of those polled experienced some form of what it referred to as “sick car syndrome.” While this research may have taken place well over a decade and a half ago, what transpired thereafter was quite significant. In 2007, South Korea put a series of regulations into place, all designed to eliminate harmful VOCs in automobiles. These legislative restrictions later inspired similar actions in Japan and Russia.

The report goes on to explain that The United Nations Economic Commission for Europe (UNECE) has been “monitoring the issue since November 2014,” and regularly updates its guidance on car interior air quality standards and testing. On the downside, many of these restrictions have not yet been adopted by countries with automotive manufacturing plants, as governments prefer to allow manufacturers the room to replace offensive cabin materials at their choosing.

So What Are Automakers Doing to Combat Chemical Out-Gassing?

When Mercedes-Benz announced that it would be taking extreme measures to combat common car cabin allergens (insert link to AK article here), some people missed the memo that it would be kicking toxic interior components to the curb as well. For decades, the German luxury brand has blazed a trail as the premier car manufacturer in the reduction and removal of vehicular out-gassing emissions. Interior components within every automobile offered by the brand must undergo extensive testing and examination to determine whether there is a risk of out-gassed new car odors. According to Mercedes-Benz, this type of analysis has been voluntarily conducted by every branch since 1992.

These tests are administered just prior to a new model going into production, as its interior emissions are tested in a series of complex procedures and real world environments. Component assessment involves the testing of numerous parts from each equipment variant, including door panels and seats, as well as areas like the roof liner and trim. In order to ensure that a realistic impression is gained, the team does not use specially produced sample components but standard production components produced to ensure further quality control measures.

Testing is conducted by the German Motor Industry Association, where components are stored and measured in a test chamber at a defined temperature, humidity level, and air circulation rate. Air samples are then extracted and used to measure the quality and quantity of gaseous substances in the air.

The examination of the vehicle as a whole involves an even more complex process, with the measurements themselves lasting a full week. The test chamber is lined with stainless steel in order to prevent it giving off emissions of its own. Large radiant heaters are used to simulate the sun and heat up the interior of the vehicle, which as we mentioned earlier, emissions tend to be greater under the influence of heat.

Inside the vehicle, as many as ten sensors are used to record the temperature in various areas, for example on the top of the dashboard. A rotating paddle stirs up the air inside the vehicle to ensure an even mix. As soon as a temperature of 65 degrees Celsius has been reached, samples of air are extracted from the interior and the airflow is directed into a series of test tubes. The chemical composition of the evaporated substances are then analysed in a laboratory by a team of serious-looking scientists who secretly watch Dexter’s Lab on the weekends while eating sugary cereal.

When it’s all said and done, Mercedes-Benz’s team of scientists will have taken more than 100 samples from a single vehicle, and will have calculated overall emissions, and compared them to the emissions found within individual organic compounds.

Parting Shots

While certain automakers have stopped using harmful or unpleasant-smelling chemicals in their interiors, the Ford Motor Company has opted to take a very different approach to tackling this putrid problem. Back in 2018, USA Today found that in order to remove unpleasant chemicals that off-gas from interior car parts, Ford scientists decided that “baking the car until the odor disappears'' was the best approach. While tossing a Mustang into a massive oven is completely out of the question, the patent Ford filed did offer some... unorthodox solutions.

As we mentioned earlier, parking a vehicle in the hot sun tends to force out-gassing to occur at a far more rapid rate. Ford’s patent suggests that by cracking the windows and potentially turning the engine, heater and fan on at once, the unpleasant, and potentially dangerous aromas could be allowed to escape.

Codenamed "vehicle odor remediation" by its creators, this patent-pending system apparently relies upon specialized software, various air quality sensors, and a driverless or semi-autonomous vehicle. Once activated, the car would determine whether there was an out-gassing issue, and then decide whether or not conditions were acceptable for removing said chemical compounds. If everything lined-up, the vehicle would then drive itself to a warm parking spot in the sun, and bake until the sensors inside the cabin could no longer detect the odor(s) in question.

Whether or not this patent ever gets fully put into play remains to be seen. But even if Ford’s solution remains little more than an unimplemented patent until the end of time, the engineers who came-up with this solution deserve an “A” for ingenuity. “What do you mean we need to replace all of the glue and plastic trim inside the cabin?! Oh fuck it. We might as well put a tech feature in the damn thing so that the car can go sunbathing to get rid of the smell.”

While the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office hasn't issued a ruling on the "vehicle odor remediation" patent application and Ford hasn't committed to moving forward with the project, the paperwork explains what creates the odor so many Americans like:

Caption: That new-car smell is more than likely being caused by "volatile organic compounds," or VOCs. These toxic aromas are often extruded from the chemicals contained within processed synthetic and real leather, plastics, and vinyl. Many of the adhesives utilized in the cabin interior assembly process have also been known to contribute to this enticing, yet extremely toxic odor.






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