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Toxic Cabins?

Is your new car making you sick?

Courtesy CSIRO

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New car headaches may involve more than minor warranty problems. Research by the Australian research organization CSIRO has found high levels of air toxic emissions inside new motor vehicles for up to six months and longer after they leave the showroom.

Dr Steve Brown, head of CSIRO's Air Quality Control research says, "Just as air inside our homes and workplaces is often much more polluted than the air outside, so sitting in a new car can expose you to levels of toxic emissions many times beyond goals established by Australia's National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC)".

During its two-year study using three new motor vehicles from three weeks of their delivery to purchasers, CSIRO became aware of anecdotal reports, such as:

  • A solicitor who was ill for several days (headache, lung irritation, swelling) after collecting a new locally built car and driving it for only 10 minutes (the solicitor eventually swapped it for an 18-month-old car, which did not affect her health).
  • A government worker who felt ill when driving new government cars during the first 6 months after their delivery.
  • A chemically sensitised person who felt 'spaced out' when in any new car.
  • A salesman who regularly updated his locally built car and found he became lethargic on long trips (e.g. from Melbourne to Geelong) when the car was new.

Dr Brown says, "Measurements made during the CSIRO study found that total volatile organic compound (TVOC) concentrations were initially very high (up to 64,000 micrograms per cubic metre) in two Australian-made cars which reached the market 3-10 weeks after manufacture."

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Controlled exposures of human subjects by other researchers to a 22-compound mixture at concentrations of less than half this have produced effects within minutes, such as subjective reactions (odour, discomfort, drowsiness, fatigue/confusion), eye/nose/throat irritation, headache and (in symptomatic subjects) neuro-behavioural impairment.

Brown says, "These levels decreased by approximately 60% in the first month, but still much exceeded the NHMRC indoor air goal of 500 micrograms per cubic metre".

The third car was imported, reaching the market four months after manufacture when the concentration of TVOCs was 2000 micrograms per cubic metre.

"This is still four times more than the recommended goal and remains a concern," says Dr Brown.

Air toxics being emitted inside new cars during the CSIRO study and the effects they may cause include:

  • Benzene - a known human carcinogen for which an annual exposure goal of 16 micrograms per cubic metre has been recommended in the UK.
  • Cyclohexanone - a possible human carcinogen.
  • Ethylbenzene - a systemic toxic agent.
  • MIBK - a systemic toxic agent.
  • n-Hexane - a neurotoxic agent.
  • Styrene - a probable human carcinogen.
  • Toluene - a central nervous system dysfunction.
  • Xylene isomers - a foetal development toxic agent.
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Dr Brown says, "To avoid some exposure to this toxic cocktail, people who buy new cars should make sure there is plenty of outside air entering the vehicle while they drive, for at least six months after the vehicle has been purchased, although this may not be possible in heavy traffic due to air toxics from car exhausts. Ultimately, what we need are cars with interior materials that produce low emissions."

CSIRO is also keen to develop a Green Air Label to assist consumers to choose healthy indoor air environments and environmentally friendly products.

David Lang, Director Technical Services of the Australian Automobile Association says, "CSIRO's work shows the need for further study on motorists to identify any effects that may impair driving."

RACV's Environmental Programs Officer, Kathryn Hannan says, "The RACV would like to see further investigations conducted into the potential health effects of VOC emissions from new car interiors."

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Petar Johnson, President of the Australian Environmental Labelling Association, says, "This study has conclusively shown that designers of car interiors must give greater consideration to the materials that are used in furnishings. In order to continue to deliver cars responsive to consumer health and choice for the 21st century with innovations such as dual-fuel and recyclable parts, the subject of VOC and human toxicity exposure while driving must be high on the priority list for car redesign for environment programs."

The exposure of Australians to air toxics is part of an ongoing study by CSIRO Thermal & Fluids Engineering which has so far studied new homes, paints, wood-based panels and furniture, unflued gas heaters, workplaces and offices. (See breakout box)

It is estimated by CSIRO that indoor air pollution costs the Australian community in excess of $10 billion a year in illness and lost productivity.

Inside Air Pollution

The study of pollutants within the cabins of cars arose out of the ongoing work by CSIRO in studying the inside environment of buildings. The organization's 'Short Course - Indoor Air Quality' states:

It is a popular misconception that indoor air pollutants are just ambient air pollutants that get drawn into buildings with ventilation air. The main indoor air pollutants arise from a diverse range of indoor materials and products that emit pollutants and have no relationship to outdoor air pollution. As a result, it is commonly found for most air pollutants that indoor air concentrations are far in excess of those outdoors.

With specific regard to Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), the course goes on:

VOCs is the term used to describe essentially all organic chemicals in the boiling point range of 50 degrees C to 260 degrees C, a list which would contain several hundred chemicals. Essentially these consist of petrochemical solvent-type compounds eg. aliphatic and aromatic hydrocarbons, alkenes, halogenated hydrocarbons, ketones, aldehydes, esters. In any building it is common to find 50 or more of these compounds at levels of ppb (parts per billion) or greater. They arise from the vast array of synthetic products that we introduce into buildings which have solvents or their residues present, eg:

  • new buildings - paints, adhesives, carpets, sealants, reconstituted wood products, new furniture
  • established buildings - cleaning products, printed materials, office equipment, consumer products, drycleaned clothing, car exhaust, cigarette smoke.

Measurement of VOC and TVOC concentrations at the ppb levels described requires sophisticated sampling and analytical equipment eg. adsorbents to capture the VOCs, gas chromatography to separate the 50-150 VOCs captured and mass spectrometry to analyse them. There are no simple procedures available.

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