New Car Smell Could Give You Cancer

  • We’re proposing a new guideline for life: if it smells, tastes, or feels good, it’s probably bad for you.

There’s just something about the new car smell that just makes you feel… Good. Maybe it highlights the fact that you’re driving a brand new car, but considering that it’s offered as an air freshener, people just seem to like it.

But you might want to hold back on snorting in the scent of your new ride. Unless, of course, you really want to develop cancer.

A new study, published in the journal Environment International, has found that commuters might be inhaling dangerous amounts of carcinogenic particles. Some of those particles are responsible for the particular new car smell.

The materials used to build car interiors – plastics, industrial glues, foams, and textiles – are unsurprisingly drenched in various chemicals. As the parts come into contact with air, some of those chemical particles start floating off the materials, reported ScienceAlert.

“These chemicals are very volatile, moving easily from plastics and textiles to the air that you breathe,” the study’s co-author David Volz, a professor of environmental toxicology at the University of California Riverside, told EurekAlert.

When our noses pick up these chemicals, they register in our brains as a pleasant scent. But unfortunately those same particles can wreak havoc once inside the human body.

Breathing in the Fumes

Among the particles emitted by car materials are benzene and formaldehyde. Both are carcinogenic compounds, meaning that they can cause cancer.

But just because they can cause cancer, doesn’t mean they will do so in every situation. So don’t worry if you’ve enjoyed some new car smell lately – it probably didn’t give you cancer.


The key word here is exposure. In small doses and concentrations, like over a short ride to the store, you will most likely not face any issues.

The problems start arising when, for example, you’re stuck in traffic for hours on end during your commute. A car is a mostly sealed environment, and the researchers say that it’s ideal for these chemicals to start building up in dangerous levels.

The scientists’ calculations show that benzene and formaldehyde levels inside a car can exceed the safety threshold after a 20-minute commute. Of course, the longer you sit in the car, the worse it gets.

“Our study raises concerns about the potential risk associated with inhalation of benzene and formaldehyde for people who spend a significant amount of time in their vehicles,” the researchers write.

“[It is] an issue that is especially pertinent to traffic-congested areas where people have longer commutes,” they add.

Dangers of Commuting

The research team carried out their study in the heavily trafficked areas of Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Santa Clara, and Alameda, all in California. The numbers they discovered don’t paint a nice picture.

According to the researchers, nine out of ten people in the studied cities have at least 30-minute commute times. This gives all of them a 10% chance of exceeding cancer risk from inhaling dangerous compounds in their cars.

However, that doesn’t mean that the entire population has cancer. As we mentioned, exposure is key.

“Of course, there is a range of exposure that depends on how long you’re in the car, and how much of the compounds your car is emitting,” said the lead author Aalekhya Reddam, a PhD student at the University of California Riverside.

Other factors associated with long commutes might also make a bigger impact on getting cancer from sitting in a car. Obesity, spending long hours inactive, and not getting enough sleep have all been found to contribute to cancer, and all are also linked to commuting.

Still, there’s definitely no harm in cutting back on sniffing in the new car chemicals.

Just Open a Window

But how exactly are people supposed to do that? You’ve got to get to work, after all, and for many people driving your car is the only feasible option.

And what about those who drive as a job, like taxi and truck drivers? What are they supposed to do?

Well, there is actually a simple solution, according to Reddam. Just crack open a window.

“At least with some air flow, you’d be diluting the concentration of these chemicals inside your car,” she said.

Then again, if you’re stuck in rush hour traffic in central L.A., you have to ask whether you want to open your windows. The exhaust-filled air might just be even more toxic than what’s in your car.

A better answer, say Reddam and Volz, is to use less hazardous materials in cars.

“There should be alternatives to these chemicals to achieve the same goals during vehicle manufacturing. If so, these should be used,” said Volz.

In the meanwhile, just open the window a bit. You might lose some of that sweet, sweet new car smell, but at least you might stay healthier.

Or, you know, just walk to work if you can.

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