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Informed consumers know by now that the “new car smell”—released by chemicals in seat cushions, armrests, floor coverings and other features of an auto’s interior—is not a good thing. But we’re just learning how bad it might be.
The Ecology Center tested the interiors of 2000- to 2005-model-year cars for the presence of toxic chemicals. It checked out 11 leading automakers and discovered that worrisome substances known as PBDEs (for flame-retardant polybrominated diphenyl ethers), linked to brain and thyroid problems, exist at levels five times higher in cars than in homes and offices.
“Most people think about cars causing outdoor air pollution, such as smog,” said Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Center’s campaign director, when the group released its report in January 2006. “Now we know that breathing the air and dust inside cars may be dangerous.”
Founded nearly 40 years ago after the country’s first Earth Day, the Ann Arbor, MI–based Ecology Center is now working with Environmental Defense, the Environmental Working Group and Greenpeace to reform the Toxic Substances Control Act of 1976. This federal law establishes which chemicals are approved for use in consumer products, including cars.
“But PBDEs were already in use when the law was passed,” Gearhart tells VT, so they were “grandfathered” in. “We want to change the law so grandfathered chemicals must undergo the same toxicity testings as new chemicals do, and if they fail the tests, are banned.”
Banning these flame retardants would be irresponsible, says John Kyte, North American program director for the Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, which represents PBDE manufacturers. “The Ecology Center reported the presence of [PBDEs], but at inconsequential levels,” Kyte tells VT. “Fire prevention in automobiles is critical,” and PBDEs include deca-PBDE, the most studied flame retardant.
If PBDEs are banned, it’s unlikely to be in one fell swoop. Because states can establish their own standards for which chemicals are permissible in consumer products, the Ecology Center is campaigning in state houses as well as in Congress.
“That’s actually a good thing,” Gearhart explains. “Since it’s not realistic for automakers to design a car for every market, if even one state requires that PBDEs be removed from cars, automakers will have to design their products to meet this most restrictive standard. That’s a huge victory.”