The somewhat enjoyable smell of recently purchased vehicles can be described as oddly satisfying for the majority of buyers, but where does this odour come from? With the production of vehicles, comes a wide variety of long, hard to pronounce chemicals that don’t appear to be too alarming to the public. Along with the film produced on windows and the constant slick, leathery feeling of the steering wheel, chemicals are to blame as a result of synergic and antagonistic interactions, thus producing the infamous “new car smell” (Verriele. M, Plaisance. H, Vandenbilke. V, Locoge. N, Jaubert. J & Meunier, G., 2011). Sitting in your car on a hot day increases your exposure to these chemicals. The heat allows for the vapors from plasticizers used in the production of the vehicle, especially the foam used for the seats, to be more evident in the air being inhaled. There are three main chemicals that are prominent in the production of this smell; butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), C-14 – C-17 which can also be described as long chain aliphatic hydrocarbons and toluene (Chien, Y., 2007)
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The first chemical and the most common is BHT. Butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) is an antioxidant commonly found in food additives, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals however, is also a main ingredient in hydraulic fluids, jet fuel, gear oils and embalming fluid. It is described to be white or yellow in colour and has properties that allow this compound to be flammable. According to the Center for Science in the Public Interest, BHT can be categorized under “caution” as a result of a debate which noted that there may be possible connections between butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT) and cancer risks, asthma and behavioural issues in young children. In the 1970’s, food companies and institutions began to slowly withdraw BHT from food additives and substitute it for butylated hydroxyanisole (BHA), however there has yet to be an alternative being used within fuels and oils used in cars. Although the effects of BHT are not proven to be fatal or life-threatening, the idea of unknowingly inhaling a chemical used within jet fuels, pharmaceuticals and various greases, is quite alarming. Another chemical that was shown to be an ingredient for the new car smell was aliphatic hydrocarbons and more specifically C-14 – C-17.
These hydrocarbons are flammable which gives them the opportunity to act as fuels. They are commonly found in Bunsen burners, natural gases and acetylene, which is used in welding. With the manufacturing of vehicles, these hydrocarbons are commonly used as hydraulic acids which acts as a lubricant for automotive suspension and as a lubricant in most brake fluids and motor oils. In large quantities, these chemicals can be highly toxic and dangerous to the body, causing skin irritations, organ distress and even death if the quantity is overpowering in the lungs or the substance is ingested. Toluene is another vapour that can be identified from the pungent smell of new cars. It is a volatile chemical, displaying its flammable quality and toxic concentrations at room temperatures (ATSDR, 2014). The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry added that due to its mass being heavier than air, toluene can cause asphyxiation when exposed in enclosed, poor ventilated areas which evidently would not be suitable for the environment of a car (2014).
Infants and babies are at a higher risk of receiving a larger dose than adults in the same environment due to their surface area: body weight ratio (ATSDR, 2014). It has been suggested that with the inhalation of toluene, there could be an interference with normal function of neuronal proteins within the body (ATSDR, 2014). This could be due to mass volumes being inhaled and the metabolic intermediates which this chemical demonstrates. If swallowed, the chemical can cause nausea, irritation to the stomach and other organs, vomiting and liver damage. Toluene is used as an octane booster in most gasoline and engine fuels and can be used in adhesives. After a closer, in depth look at the real reason for the new car scent, it is evident that the outcome is an overall burden on a person’s health. Although the elimination of this odour is not a current possibility, there are solutions. Keeping the windows open to aerate the car could help reduce the amount of chemicals being inhaled and keep a healthy balance of oxygen in our lungs. Another alternative would be to purchase cars with fabric interior rather than leather to keep chemical sealants and additional toxic chemicals from interfering. These solutions and alternatives will help slowly reduce the levels of chemical intake and potentially lower any health risks that may be impending. The effects of butylated hydroxytoluene (BHT), aliphatic hydrocarbons and toluene can pose a potentially life threating effect on our daily lives while using a new car and should be kept at minimal exposure until alternatives are used in the production of vehicles.
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