What causes ‘new car smell’?

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There is nothing like new car smell. You probably wouldn't call it a fresh smell, but it's definitely an unused smell.

No one else’s funk has permeated the car; it’s a blank slate for you and your very own funk. It smells like money — maybe like your first real job, or a graduation present, or a reward for your retirement. It might smell a bit like leather if you’re fancy, or it might smell more like vinyl (before the kids have spilled who-knows-what on its easy-to-clean surface). Either way, it smells like you made a decision and committed the cash to paying for it over the next few years. All of this is lovely, but what actually is new car smell? The truth is it’s a far less romantic, yet still heady, mix of 50 to 60 volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, off-gassing in your car. (These are the same compounds that cause a greasy film to form on your car’s windshield.) At new-car concentrations, these chemicals are not terribly dangerous, but they’re not exactly aromatherapy, either. They do break down quickly, to the tune of about 20 percent decay every week, so the smell doesn’t linger all that long. That’s why we call it new-car smell, not car-I’ve-had-for-five-years smell.
Is That ‘New Car Smell’ Toxic?
A new study suggests that new car smell comes from toxic chemicals off-gassing in a car’s interior, like brominated flame retardants (BFRs), chromium, and lead. In all, researchers identified more than 275 different chemicals in vehicle interiors, including those associated with birth defects, impaired learning, liver problems, and cancer. The 2012 new vehicle study from the nonprofit Ecology Center analyzed the chemical content of more than 200 new cars for its top 10 healthy and unhealthy car interiors. The higher the vehicle rating in the study, the higher the level of these chemicals was, based on their testing methods. At the top of the list for the most healthy car interior is the 2012 Honda Civic. Researchers say it earned strong marks for not having any bromine-based flame retardants, while boasting polyvinyl chloride (PVC)-free interior fabrics and trim, and low levels of heavy metals.
It’s certainly not good for you, with effects ranging from a headache, nausea, and sore throat to cancer and immune system disorders. To some extent, the risk depends on where you live. Some countries have fairly stringent regulations governing the amount of toxic chemicals allowed in a new car. The United States, on the other hand, does not have any air quality laws relating to new car smell, so the levels of chemicals may be much higher in an American-built vehicle.
Is there anything you can do?
Car manufacturers are sensitive to the problem and try to minimize the release of toxic chemicals. After all, a displeased or dead consumer won’t buy a new car, right? Both leather and fabric generate VOCs, so you can’t really select an interior to minimize the smell. If you get a new car that is unbearably smelly, tell the dealership. Make sure fresh air is available for pregnant women and children, since some of the chemicals can affect development. Most of the gases responsible for new car smell are produced during the first month or two after the car is made. There isn’t anything you can do to prevent it from happening, but you can leave the windows cracked in the vehicle to air it out. Allowing air from the outside rather than recirculating it can minimize negative effects when you need to close up the car because of weather. Keeping the car in a cool garage will help, since chemical reactions occur more quickly when it’s hot. If you have to park outside, choose a shady spot or put a sun shade under the windshield.