The greatest part of purchasing a new vehicle is opening the door, jumping inside, and sucking in that new car smell by the noseful. Ahh, we can smell the sweet, intoxicating aroma now. But unfortunately for us (and for all you other new car smell lovers out there), a new report shows that the fresh scent may not be so clean.

The Ecology Center, a Michigan-based environmental group, tested hundreds of 2006 and 2007-model cars for chemicals that off-gas from indoor car parts, which is what creates that new car smell.  Using a fancy, schmancy tool called an X-Ray Fluorescence device, researchers tested the elemental composition of auto parts like steering wheels, dashboards, seat backs, and carpets.  They found that many cars contained bromine, chlorine, lead, and heavy metals, which have been linked to ailments like allergies, birth defects, learning impairments, liver problems, and cancer.  Since the average American spends about 1.5 hours in the car each day, exposure to indoor air pollution could pose significant health risks.

Lucky for us, some cars give off way less noxious fumes than others, and the Ecology Center ranked the vehicles tested according to their chemical levels.  The Chevy Cobalt poses the least concerns, while the Nissan Versa topped the “Ten Worst Picks” list.  Owners can check how other models ranked at

From an Ecology Center press release:

“Our findings show that it is not necessary to use toxic chemicals when making indoor auto parts,” said Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center’s Clean Car Campaign Director.  “There is no excuse for manufacturers not to replace these hazardous chemicals with safe alternatives immediately.”

We here at Plenty agree with aptly-named Gearhart, who clearly hearts some gears more than others.  But in case you’re worried about chemicals off-gassing in your own car, the Ecology Center suggests a couple of tips to mitigate your exposure.  Parking in the shade, using solar reflectors, and ventilating the car before you enter by rolling down windows and opening doors are helpful practices.  The group also suggests installing carbon filters to cut back on exposure to chemicals. 

And while replacing chemical-laden auto parts for more eco alternatives may not give you that new car smell anymore, fear not: Alternative plastics can be made from citrus, corn, and algae.  Maybe eau de orange cornbread will be the new new car smell. 

Story by Sarah Parsons. This article originally appeared in Plenty in March 2007. This story was added to in June 2009.

Copyright Environ Press 2007.

New car smell may be toxic
Michigan's Ecology Center found that many new car parts contained bromine, chlorine, lead and heavy metals.