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Your Car Could Be Killing You

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Next time you notice that "clean car smell", hold your breath and roll down the windows.

A study by the Ecology Centre in Michigan has linked car interiors with toxic chemicals, specifically PBDEs, which are used as flame retardants, and phthalates, used to soften PVC plastics.

These chemicals are used to make seat cushions, armrests, floor coverings, wire insulation and other interior vehicle parts.

Dangerous levels of these chemicals were found in windshield film and dust samples taken from 2000 to 2005 model cars. The study explains that PDBEs and phthalates are more rapidly released into air at extremely high temperatures (cars can heat up to 190 degrees farenheit) and UV exposure from parking in the sun is another favorable condition for chemical breakdown.

An increase in temperature makes automobiles a unique environment for toxic chemicals to accumulate; the chemicals are vaporizing from these materials, out of these solid plastics and foams, because these groups of chemicals are not chemically bound, thus giving them "a natural volatility."

The Associated Press [ reported]in September, 2005 that fumes from volatile organic compounds, or VOCs, leaching from glues, paints, vinyls and plastics found in cars "can trigger headaches, sore throats, nausea and drowsiness. Prolonged exposure to some of the chemicals can lead to cancer, though there's no evidence linking that to concentrations in cars."

The [Ecology Center's] study now has the evidence.

Toxic at Any Speed: Chemicals in Cars & the Need for Safe Alternatives is the first study of its kind to reveal this information and alert both car manufacturers and consumers to potential risks. These chemicals have been linked to birth defects, premature birth, impaired learning and liver toxicity in laboratory animals.

Jeff Gearhart, co-author of the report, sampled 133 vehicles from 11 manufacturers and then sent the reports to manufacturers of those cars tested. "We met with many of the companies before the report's release to discuss their chemical policies and how they are going to address this issue," says Gearhart. "In terms of flame retardants, we found evidence that it is breaking down into more toxic and unknown compounds — a significant finding."

About one year ago, The Ecology Center graded the auto makers progress toward using sustainable plastics. "The worst culprits are those manufacturers who have not improved their chemical policies, including Mercedes, Chrysler, Toyota and Subaru," Gearhart reports.

But a few auto manufacturers are looking at this as a marketing tool - Volvos had the lowest chemical emissions and are using the test results to promote its clean interior. "We think that the smart companies will move in this direction and we are hopeful that we will see this kind of change," says Gearhart.

Nine states in the US have banned the use of two forms of PDBEs and a number of states are looking at banning other chemicals. But is it too late? The [Environmental Working Group] points out the failure of regulatory systems to control toxins, particularly fire retardants.

Gearhart remains optimistic. "Increasingly in the US, governments are looking to reduce these chemicals and prohibit the sales of chemicals. We think the writing is on the wall for PBDE flame retardants to be banned completely and smart companies are getting out of using them."

The Ecology Center is committed to "an ongoing effort to work with the industry and push them to move toward healthier and more sustainable vehicles," says Gearhart.

Since this report was made public, many people are trying to get out of their car leases and wanting to trade in their new vehicles.

What you can do to reduce the rate of exposure: vacuum frequently, use solar reflectors, ventilate car interiors and park away from sunlight.

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