Beloved "New Car Smell" Could Actually Be Toxic — Details Here

This is raising concerns about the health impacts for car riders and drivers alike.

Lauren Wellbank - Author

May 7 2024, Published 2:29 p.m. ET

Cars on a car lot
Source: Getty Images

Nobody heads to the store looking for organophosphate-ester-flame-retardant-scented air fresheners, but findings released by an environmental science journal say that may be what people think of when hoping to recreate that "new car smell." That's because the scent we all associate with a car fresh off the assembly line may be flame retardants used in the manufacturing process.

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As if that wasn't surprising enough, those flame retardants may also be toxic and outdated, raising questions about the need to use them at all. Continue reading to learn more about these findings and what they may mean for your daily commute.

Men looking at a new car in the dealership
Source: Getty Images
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Is "new car scent" toxic? Study finds chemicals associated with neurotoxicity being used in cars.

A study headed up by the Green Science Policy Institute and Duke University was published in the Environmental Science & Technology journal in May 2024, which made the shocking claim that nearly all personal vehicles contain air pollution caused by harmful organophosphate ester flame retardants. These chemicals are commonly used in things like seat foam and other components that come standard in nearly all personal vehicles.

Almost every car tested during the process of this study was found to have levels of tris (1-chloro-isopropyl) phosphate (TCIPP). This flame retardant is being investigated as a potential carcinogen by the U.S. National Toxicology program according to U.S. News & World Report.

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TCIPP wasn't the only concerning finding. Researchers say they also found levels of tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TDCIPP) and tris (2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP) as well, which are both listed as Proposition 65 carcinogens in California, according to a press release from the Green Science Policy Institute. The report didn't mince words about what this could mean for consumers, who could be exposed to different levels of these chemicals depending on their lifestyle and location.

The inside of a brand-new car with leather seats and a black dashboard.
Source: iStock
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For example, drivers in warmer areas would be exposed to higher levels of the chemicals — which have been linked to both reproductive and neurological issues — due to the off-gassing that occurs when temperatures rise. Additionally, those who spend more time in the car due to long commutes and young passengers would be at an increased risk of exposure.

Despite these concerns, the flame retardants named in the study are still within federal guidelines set in the 1970s. Researchers note that the guidelines haven't been updated since their adoption. They also point out that there are now questions about whether these toxic chemicals are effective when used as flame retardants.

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How long does new car smell last?

The smell associated with the organophosphate ester flame retardants only lasts a few months, according to the Shop Auto Smart blog, which also states that volatile organic compounds (VOCs) are among the chemicals contributing to the smell. The blog says that the longer a car has been off the assembly line, the more dissipated those VOCs become, reducing your ability to detect those particular smells any longer.

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Here's how to get rid of new car smell:

There are a few different ways you can get rid of the smell, including keeping your windows open to help those chemicals escape from the cabin of your car. Another way to reduce the smell is to opt for shaded parking spaces so that you can limit the amount of off-gassing that happens from increased temperatures. Lastly, you can sprinkle a little baking soda (a natural odor absorber) around your car, allowing it to sit for a few minutes before vacuuming it up.

Of course, if you'd like to avoid being exposed to the chemicals behind the new car smell altogether, you can always opt to buy a used car that has already completed the off-gassing process and that no longer carries the trademark scent.

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