YOU DON’T WANT to know. Seriously. Just enjoy your brand-new car as you revel in the sweet, sweet smell of conspicuous consumption. Definitely don’t think about the fact that you’re inhaling a potpourri of perhaps 200 different chemicals, including formaldehyde, benzene, and various other volatile organic compounds (VOCs). That would just spoil the mood. The aromas that make up your new car’s bouquet are the product of the off-gassing of the plastics, adhesives, and other components that make up the interior—dashboard, upholstery, rich Corinthian leather, etc.
Off-gassing occurs because many chemicals that are added to polymers to impart specific qualities (like, say, flexibility) do not bond to the other compounds and are therefore released over time in a process similar to evaporation. There’s no definitive research establishing the risk, if any, posed by new-car smell, though certain of the individual components are known carcinogens. The question is whether drivers suffer harmful levels of exposure— and it’s a hard question to answer, especially as most of us encounter the same chemical vapors elsewhere. “One of the things we’re
concerned about is that some of the important chemicals you’re exposed to in a car, you’re also exposed to at home and in other environments,”says Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center in Ann Arbor, Michigan. “Some of these exposures may be cumulative.”
Common sense would suggest that you keep your new ride (or freshly painted and carpeted home, for that matter) well ventilated, especially on hot days, as off-gassing increases with temperature. Gear-hart notes that using the external air-circulation feature on your car’s climate-control system can lower the concentration of airborne chemicals by as much as 77 percent. Like most intoxicants, new-car smell is best consumed in moderation. Please enjoy responsibly.