New Car Smell – Not Welcome Any More!

By Louis Rumao

The well-known and respected J.D. Power’s `Initial Quality Study’ (IQS) for automobiles has revealed some interesting observations. In the US, entertainment and connectivity systems continue to be the most problem-prone areas for new car owners, with voice recognition and Bluetooth together continuing to top the problem list. Interestingly, most Americans love that new car smell, so much so that commercial sprays are available to reclaim that new-car smell even in old cars!
But in China they hate it, and according to `IQS’, it is ranked as the number one concern for two years in a row! Apparently, pollution is so bad in major Chinese urban areas, that it has made Chinese car buyers hypersensitive to the new car smell. Some car service businesses even offer special services to get rid of that smell!
While an average motorist may spend about one-to-two hours in a car each day, off-gassing chemicals are a particular concern for people who drive longer. Both OEM’s and regulators are concerned about prolonged exposure to toxic chemicals inside the vehicle. Heat from a vehicle left in the sun can make matters worse, and speed up the off-gassing. The danger is reduced over a period, and experts say the worst is usually over within six months.
Car interior consists of many non-metallic components, some held together with adhesives and sealers. These materials outgas and release volatile organic compounds (VOCs), some of which could be toxic, according to a study from the non-profit Ecology Centre and HealthyStuff.org. “Research shows that vehicle interiors contain a unique cocktail of hundreds of toxic chemicals that off-gas in small, confined spaces,” Jeff Gearhart, the Research Director at the Ecology Centre, said. “Chemicals are not regulated, consumers have no way of knowing the dangers they face. Our testing is intended to expose those dangers and encourage manufacturers to use safer alternatives.” The study of more than 200 of the most popular 2011-2012 automobiles for chemicals that off-gas from interior car parts such as the steering wheel, dashboard, armrests, carpets and seats, found more than 275 different chemicals in the interiors of cars, and created a `vehicle rating’ based on the amount of chemicals they found. Some of the chemicals may be linked to learning and memory impairment, decreased fertility, and problems with the thyroid, liver, kidneys, and blood. Immediate symptoms can range from a sore throat to headaches, dizziness, allergic reactions and nausea, depending on the sensitivity of an individual.

Pro-active OEMs

Not all is bleak about the state of new car smells. OEMs have taken a number of steps to reduce or remove chemicals of concern from their vehicles. “Since we first started testing in 2006, we have seen an improvement on average in the vehicles that are in the market,” Gearhart told a local TV station. “So, we know there is a trend toward healthier interiors, but what we really want to see is that it is accelerated.”
Today, most vehicle interior components do not contain any halogen, bromine and chlorine compounds, the major substances of concern (SOCs). Automakers have taken steps to reduce VOC levels in their vehicles, along with other SOCs. They say they have accomplished this primarily by specifying different materials, coatings and adhesives for components, and they are continuing to look for ways to eliminate the use of potentially harmful substances in their cars.
Many of these changes have come about in response to regulations in Europe, where greater restrictions on the use of chemicals are already in place. The European REACH programme (Registration, Evaluation, Authorization, and restriction of CHemical substances) was implemented to protect people and the environment from hazardous chemicals, and to find less toxic substitutes for use in vehicles and other manufactured and consumer goods. China is said to be developing its own regulations, and the US state of California has passed legislation aimed at doing the same.
Carmakers say they have also improved cabin air ventilation and filtration systems. Some, such as Ford, say they have switched to the use of more natural fibres and soy-based foam in seat cushions, which do double duty of reducing chemicals and increasing the use of renewable resources. Of course, the jury is still out on the effects of some of these alternate materials in the long-term.

Auto Parts Suppliers

Auto parts suppliers, who use solvents, adhesives, plastics, rubbers and fabrics in construction or assembly of their components, need to comply with OEMs VOCs and odour specifications. They must ensure that raw materials purchased for use in their manufacturing operations and parts sold to OEMs comply with customer’s specifications for VOC and odour. Examples of some typical specifications are as follows: Odour: VDA 270, SAE J 1351, Ford FLTM BO 131-03, Toyota TSM 0505G; Hazardous substances: VW 91101; Fogging: SAE J 1756

Advice For New Car Owners

The best thing that the buyers can do to limit exposure is to keep car interiors well ventilated, especially during the first six months of ownership, and to park in the shade with the windows open, when it is safe to do so, and to air out before getting inside, especially on hot days. It would be better to avoid sitting in the car while it is parked, and use a windshield solar shade to minimize heat build-up. And for those who are especially sensitive to chemicals, an extended sit behind the wheel could be part of the test drive, to see if symptoms or irritation start to develop. Fortunately, a lot of the volatile chemicals in a car’s interior go away gradually and that is why they call it `new car smell’. But they can come back on hot days when higher temperatures increase the rate of off-gassing.

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