If You Smell This in Your Car, Your Health Could Be in Danger, Study Says

A new study says this smell could be exposing you to dangerous chemicals.

Chances are high you spend a large portion of your time in your car. And if you don't clean it out often, it probably smells a little funky from time to time. Maybe it still stinks of the takeout you picked up last night, maybe it's the spill on the upholstery you never cleaned up, or maybe it's that musty odor coming from your air conditioner. But there's one particular smell that you may not realize should be cause for concern. According to a new study published in the journal Environment International, one of the most beloved smells out there—what's affectionately known as "new car smell"—is actually harmful to your health in more ways than one. Read on to learn more about why the scent is putting you at risk, and for more health news, If You Have This Snack at Home, Get Rid of it Now, FDA Says.

Your new car smell is likely the combination of "volatile" chemicals.

Happy man receiving keys for his new car in a showroom.
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According to the new study out of the University of California, Riverside, that "new car smell" loved by so many of us is usually the combination of two chemicals: formaldehyde and benzene. Formaldehyde is often used in the carpets, leather, and paints of a vehicle's interior, while benzene can be found within plastics, synthetic fibers, rubbers, dyes, and more.

"These chemicals are very volatile, moving easily from plastics and textiles to the air that you breathe," David Volz, PhD, an environmental toxicologist from the University of California, Riverside and co-author of the study, said in a statement. And for more on staying safe, make sure you know The No. 1 Thing You Should Never Keep in Your Car.

These two chemicals can cause serious health problems.

woman talking to young female doctor in glasses
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Formaldehyde and benzene are both known to be carcinogens, meaning they're capable of causing cancer. But even with limited exposure, they still pose other health risks. "When formaldehyde is present in the air at levels exceeding 0.1 ppm, some individuals may experience adverse effects such as watery eyes; burning sensations in the eyes, nose, and throat; coughing; wheezing; nausea; and skin irritation," the National Cancer Institute explains. Benzene can also lead to reproductive and developmental health issues, as well as negatively affect your blood. "Benzene causes harmful effects on the bone marrow and can cause a decrease in red blood cells, leading to anemia. It can also cause excessive bleeding and can affect the immune system, increasing the chance for infection," the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) states.

The University of California, Riverside researchers concluded that the presence of these two chemicals in particular "pose a higher risk to commuters" in terms of health complications when compared to any other chemicals present in the interior of your car. And for more on your cancer risk, Drinking This Every Day Could Slash Your Cancer Risk, Study Finds.

Driving for more 20 minutes amid "new car smell" puts you at risk, the study concludes.

Side view of a woman sitting in a car holding a steering wheel and looking on the road
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Carcinogens are not likely to cause cancer unless they exceed a certain threshold, but unfortunately, the researchers concluded that even just a short commute could exceed those levels within a car. Formaldehyde gas poses a risk of cancer above 40 micrograms per day, according to California's Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment. For benzene, the maximum allowable dose level via inhalation is 49 micrograms per day.

According to the study, concentration levels of benzene and formaldehyde typically exceed safe amounts if someone is driving for 20 minutes or longer every day. And for more up-to-date health news delivered right to your inbox, sign up for our daily newsletter.

If you can, roll your windows down if you're driving your new car longer than 20 minutes.

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The researchers are still trying to determine how "new car smell" affects various populations, as the amount of these chemicals circulating in a car depends on various factors such as "temperature, ventilation rate and mode, humidity, solar radiation, vehicle age and grade, cabin value, car upholstery material, and travel distance."

To combat the risks, Aalekhya Reddam, a graduate student and lead author of the study, recommends that commuters keep their windows open, if possible. "At least with some air flow, you'd be diluting the concentration of these chemicals inside your car," she said.

As for the car industry at large, Volz said that "alternatives to these chemicals to achieve the same goals" should be available during vehicle manufacturing and used instead. And for more help with your health, This One Thing Can Help You Drop 20 Percent of Your Body Weight.

Kali Coleman
Kali is an assistant editor at Best Life. Read more
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