Everyone loves the new car smell, but as Brian Turner tells us, we should worry about the phthalates and other such things that are toxic to everyone in the car.

Today, there are many beautiful automobiles and we rely on them each day. When we think about automotive safety, we commonly focus on physical safety features that protect us in the event of an accident when the vehicle is in motion: seat belts, air bags, child safety seats, and head restraints, to name a few. We don’t often think about the chemical hazards that can harm drivers, passengers, and others even when the car is standing still.

PBDEs, or polybrominated diphenyl ethers, are one such chemical hazard commonly found in automobiles. These toxic chemicals are used as flame retardants in the fabrics, plastics, and electronics of car interiors, and are released into the interior atmosphere of cars when exposed to ultraviolet radiation and high temperatures. PBDEs have been found to cause memory and learning disabilities in lab animals and are potential causes of birth defects and neurodevelopmental disorders in children, infants, and the developing fetus. The European Union and several U.S. states have already banned or limited the use of some forms of PBDEs in consumer products due to their toxicity.

Phthalates are another chemical group commonly found in car interiors, where they are used as a softening agent for polyvinyl chloride (PVC) components such as vinyl seats. When phthalates outgas into car interiors, they contribute to the cocktail of volatile organic compounds we commonly refer to as “new car smell.” Phthalates have been linked with liver and kidney damage, respiratory problems, and defects in reproductive development. Use of the most toxic forms of this chemical group have been banned in the European Union, and several auto manufacturers have begun phasing out their use or eliminating them entirely, but they can still be found in older models.

Asbestos is another toxic compound commonly found in automobile components that can have serious consequences for human health. Asbestos compounds were commonly used as a flame retardant in brake pads, clutch assemblies, hood liners, valve rings, gaskets, and heat seals for many decades. Although they are found less often in new car models, their use in older models poses a serious health risk for mechanics and technicians who work with these automotive parts on a daily basis as well as do-it-yourselfers and hobbyists who work on cars in their home garages. Long-term exposure to airborne asbestos fibers can lead to lung diseases including mesothelioma, a very aggressive form of lung cancer. Although there are techniques in use by professional mechanics to reduce exposure to airborne asbestos, home mechanics generally do not take these precautions, putting themselves and their families at greater risk of exposure.

Automotive safety is not merely a matter of putting on our seat belts and checking our blind spots. It also includes ensuring the safety of the air we breathe in our cars.