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LA TimesYOUR WHEELS
About the air in there

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Somehow, `outgassing from PVC parts' doesn't sound quite as nice as `that new car smell.'
By Ralph Vartabedian, Times Staff Writer
November 15, 2006

Sliding inside almost any new car and taking a deep breath has long been euphoric for new car buyers and owners, but increasingly prompts the question whether that smell is also signaling exposure to a toxic, and potentially carcinogenic, brew of gases.

A wide range of environmental groups contend that new car interiors contain a mix of unhealthy substances that come from vinyl, flame retardants on seats, lubricants and hidden sealants that collectively make up the new car smell.

The Vinyl Institute, which represents manufacturers of PVC plastic used in a growing number of automotive components, says its plastic repeatedly has been proven safe not only for cars but medical devices and children's toys.

In the latest development, a report made public today by the Ecology Center, an Ann Arbor, Mich.-based group, finds that Toyota, Ford and Honda are making key strides in improving the quality of air inside their new cars, though the majority of the industry has done little. Daimler Chrysler ranked in the middle and Volkswagen at the bottom. The rankings were based on 19 factors involved in plastics and synthetics that affect cabin air quality.

"PVC is the worst plastic," said Claudette Jusca, author of the report and a former automotive engineer. "With every part of its lifecycle it is causing problems, from the people in manufacturing to the consumers to the general public when it reaches the end of its useful life."

Whether you like or hate vinyl interiors really doesn't matter, because automakers depend on the petroleum-based product for about half of the materials inside the cabin. Its usage is increasing, despite a crusade against vinyl by the environmental lobby.

Polyvinyl chloride, the miracle product invented in the 1920s, can be rigid in the form of water supply pipes, flexible in the form of shower curtains or even tacky in the form of clothing sold on the Hollywood strip.

PVC is not listed as an environmental or health hazard, though it is manufactured with toxic materials such as vinyl chloride. One potential problem for consumers involves phthalate (pronounced thall-late), a petroleum-based chemical that is used as a plasticizer to make PVC flexible.

As PVC ages, the plasticizers form gases that escape from the plastic. Outgassing causes oily fogs on interior car windows that are a headache to clean up and ultimately restrict visibility. Although all PVC undergoes some outgassing of plasticizers, it is more pronounced in a car. On hot sunny days, a PVC dashboard can reach 200 degrees. Ultraviolet rays also accelerate PVC aging and outgassing.

But outgassed phthalate is not a human health risk and environmental groups are wrongly maligning PVC, said Allen Blakey, a spokesman at the Vinyl Institute. "We have seen no evidence that the public has lost its appreciation for PVC, though some sectors of the industry are under attack," he said.

Blakey said PVC use in medical tubing and blood bags has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. The Consumer Product Safety Commission has also reviewed the use of PVCs in toys and found nothing of concern, he said.

But environmental groups say there is plenty of evidence that phthalates cause health problems and that PVC should be banned. Medical research shows exposure to high levels of phthalate has caused development problems in the testes of rats. PVC also can contain lead, a toxic heavy metal, a factor that led the FDA to ask retailers earlier this year to stop selling lead-contaminated PVC school lunch boxes.

Marian Stanley, who manages the phthalate ester panel of the American Chemistry Council, said the crusade against PVC is badly misplaced. The rat studies so often cited by environmental groups are contradicted by primate research, showing no health consequences to high levels of phthalate exposure.

The Center for Health Environment and Justice, a New York-based group, has branded PVC "the poison plastic," and called for its elimination, noting that the widespread incineration of PVC at the end of product lives causes the production of cancer-causing dioxins. Wal-Mart has pledged to stop using PVC packaging in its store brands, and Microsoft has pledged to stop using PVC wrapping materials.

Apart from phthalates, other materials in vehicle interiors raise serious concerns. An Australian study of cabin air several years ago found a brew of 30 to 40 volatile organic compounds were present in a sample of new cars. The most prevalent were toluene, acetone, xylene, styrene and benzene, some of which are suspected or known to cause cancer. 

The Ecology Center's report, which can be accessed today at http://www.ecocenter.org <http://www.ecocenter.org/> , noted that Toyota, Ford and Honda have adopted policies to limit or reduce the amounts of PVC used in its vehicles. It also ranked manufacturers on other factors, including a commitment to improve cabin air quality. 

The group, funded by the John Merck Fund and the New York Community Trust, is the only environmental organization to focus on cabin air quality in cars, Jusca said. 

"We work with industry whenever we can," she said. "We do our best to encourage them and congratulate them when they do the right thing."

Earlier this year, the center published research that showed swabs of dust and windshield deposits taken in new cars were high in phthalates. After publishing the report, the group was besieged by motorists who reported they had experienced nausea and headaches from the fumes in their new cars. 

If you are sensitive to new car fumes, you might consider a few common sense steps:

  • Open your windows to ventilate the fumes.
  • Keep the car parked out of the sun as much as possible.
  • Use a solar shade to cover the plastic on your dashboard. 

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ralph.vartabedian@latimes.com

   
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