New-Car Smell: Find out How Toxic the Interior of Your New Car is

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Hop in a new 2012 Honda Civic and you'll be breathing easy; drive off a car lot in a 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander and you'll choke on toxic fumes, according to a new consumer's report that ranks pollution found in new car interiors.

Turns out that new-car smell can contain a toxic mix of chemicals that are left over from manufacturing seats, steering wheels, dashboards and armrests, according to consumer advocate HealthyStuff.org.

The nonprofit group released its fourth annual ranking that included over 200 vehicles produced in 2011-12. The group gave the Civic top rank while both Outlander and the Chrysler 200 SC ranked the worst for interior pollution.

The group tested for toxic heavy metals such as lead and mercury, and cancer-causing chemicals like benzene and brominated flame retardants.

Automobiles function as chemical reactors, creating one of the most hazardous environments we spend time in, Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center, a non-profit organization in Ann Arbor, Mich. that runs HealthyStuff.org, said in a press release.

The use of these chemicals declined since 2006, but many cars still contain chemical levels that consumer advocates considered unsafe. Advocates also said that there exists no mandatory testing or regulation of the chemicals used in vehicle manufacturing.

Consumers face a lack of information while they are car shopping, the authors states in a report issued Wednesday.

Joining the Civic in top ranking cars were the 2011 Toyota Prius and 2011 Honda CR-Z. The advocates included in the worst picks the Kia Soul.

Of all the chemicals the researchers looked for, they found the biggest decrease has been in the use of plastic made with polyvinyl chloride (PVC), which the study authors deemed the most toxic of all plastics.

During the production phase, workers at PVC facilities, as well as residents and wildlife in surrounding neighborhoods, may be exposed to the vinyl chloride monomer and/or dioxin, both of which are likely carcinogens, the study authors wrote. PVC is not easily recycled from auto parts and therefore often ends up in landfills, where the chemicals can leach out and contaminate soil, water and wildlife.

In individual cases, HealthyStuff.org authors explained what made the car interiors more toxic or safer.

For example, the Civic used flame retardants that did not use bromine, a chemical that affects the nervous system and can cause genetic mutations in humans. In contrast, the Outlander not only used bromine, but also leather seats treated with chromium, a chemical that is known to cause cancer; along with seat materials that contain lead that delays development in children.

Prior to 2006, manufacturers produced all new cars with PVC. In 2005, some automakers announced they would phase out PVC. By 2006, 4.1 percent of new cars produced were PVC-free, a number that grew to 16.7 percent for 2011 and 2012 models. Honda, maker of the Civic, lead automakers in PVC reduction; 83 percent of their 2011/2012 cars were PVC free.

The consumer advocates measured toxic chemicals in auto interiors with handheld X-ray fluorescence devices. Researchers took measurements on car seats, armrests, steering wheels, door trim and shift knobs. In many cases, researchers found harmful chemicals at levels that exceed indoor and outdoor air quality standards.

Our testing is intended to expose those dangers and encourage manufacturers to use safer alternatives, Gearhart said in a press release.  

The full list of cars can be viewed here.

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