Can a New Car Smell Make You Sick?

Do you love the smell of a new car in the morning? It smells like — possibilities, a new beginning, and the adventures that lie ahead. The smell of a new car is unmistakable and instantly recognizable. It’s hard to describe it, but once you smell it, you know that the car is new. However, can a new car smell make you sick? Take a deeper look, or smell, and find out. 

Is a new car smell harmful to your health?

Children backseat of a car making a bad smell expression
Andrea Delf’s Children in the Backseat of a Car | Stormi Greener/Star Tribune via Getty Images

The smell of a new car has such a positive association that some fragrance companies create sprays and air fresheners for cars to keep the new smell going for as long as possible. However, the new car smell may come at a cost. Scientists studied whether or not the new car smell is toxic to people and harmful to their health, according to U.S.News & World Report and Achoo! Allergy

VOCs in new car smell: Are they toxic?

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A new car smell is caused by Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs). VOCs emanate from the materials in cars, such as plastics, vinyl, paints, and glues. During vehicle production, gas from these materials gets trapped. Gradually, a process called off-gassing releases the gases that were trapped, creating the new car smell.

Scientists identified 50-60 VOCs in new cars. In a study conducted by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization in 2001, scientists found that sitting in a new car exposes passengers to unsafe levels of toxic emissions.

Prolonged exposure to a new car smell could be similar to sick building syndrome. When toxic VOCs seep from carpets, fixtures, and walls of new buildings, people get sick. Symptoms include headaches, nausea, drowsiness, and sore throats. The cabins of cars are a more confined and smaller space than houses, so the negative effects of VOCs could be more severe.

However, while studies show the presence of VOCs in a new car, there is not enough conclusive evidence to definitively state that a new car smell is toxic and can make you sick. In addition to the study in Australia in 2001 about new car VOCs, a study was conducted by the Technical University of Munich in 2007. For this study, researchers collected air samples from new and three-year-old cars. They then exposed the air samples to human, mouse, and hamster cells to determine if they were toxic. The tests found that the air samples are not toxic but could exacerbate allergies.

How to prevent getting sick from a new car smell

While there is no clear evidence regarding the toxicity of a new car smell, automakers are taking precautionary measures to reduce the amount of VOCs. This includes replacing synthetic materials with natural ones, such as soy-based materials. Also, automakers are improving the filtration and ventilation of cars to help speed up the release of the VOCs.

Other than avoiding buying a new car, the best thing that consumers can do to reduce exposure to the VOCs in a new car smell is to keep the interior well-ventilated during the first few months. Furthermore, you can routinely clean the car’s interior to wipe away dust, which can hold onto the VOCs. Additionally, if possible, try to park the car in the shade instead of the sun, and then roll down the windows. In a fully enclosed car that’s heated up by the sun, you could get blasted by a burst of VOCs. However, a well-ventilated car in the shade enables the VOCs to seep out while you’re away.

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