Are Vehicle Toxins Less Safe Than You Think?

Safety is a major factor for most people when it comes to purchasing or leasing a vehicle, and automotive companies have taken note of this. We now see commercials boasting safety ratings and awards, as well as examples of how the vehicle would perform given certain scenarios involving crashes or rollover. However, something we may not consider is exactly what our vehicles are made of. According to a study conducted by the nonprofit Ecology Center, researchers found over 275 chemicals within car interiors that are linked to problems such as cancer and cognitive development.

Whether you’re getting yourself into a new vehicle or plan on buying a vintage collectible, there are dangerous toxins you should be aware of on both the inside and outside of the car.

That new car smell

Almost everyone is familiar with the new car smell. Some find it appealing while others can’t stand it. But what most don’t know is that this smell is actually the result of chemicals going through an off-gassing phase. Some of the chemicals that were noted by researchers as being the most dangerous during this off-gassing period are phthalates, formaldehyde, benzene, and polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Through materials such as solvents, fire-retardants, plastics and lubricants, an abundance of airborne toxins are created within the cabin of the vehicle, potentially causing both short- and long-term health effects.

These toxins fall under the category of compounds known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs) that and are linked to problems such as allergies, tiredness, and headaches. However, prolonged exposure to these toxins can result in more adverse effects, most notably causing memory impairment and damage to major organs such as ovaries and kidneys. While research revolving around the abundance of vehicle toxins is still in its infancy, this should be an area of concern as many people are using vehicles every single day. This doesn’t mean you should swear off buying a new car, but rather be mindful of the air quality within that vehicle and its potential impacts on your health.

Dangers lurking within older vehicles

If you’re seeking out the collector car of your dreams, there are some things you should be cautious of. While regulations have tightened up more recently around vehicle production and what materials can be used during assembly, these restrictions were much more relaxed during the mid-1900s to early 2000s where there was far less restriction and documentation around what automotive companies could include across various vehicles components.

One of the most dangerous materials used in older vehicles, and has still not been fully banned in the United States, is asbestos. Asbestos is a naturally occurring mineral that both insulates and prevents the transfer of heat, making it a unique and favorable additive in various vehicle parts that experience friction and high heat. Some vehicle parts that are known to regularly contain asbestos include brakes, brake linings, hood linings, combustion engines, and a variety of gaskets. While these parts don’t necessarily pose a threat while driving, the real danger presents itself when you decide to replace parts or wrench on your own car.

Whether you decide to work on your vehicle in your own garage or have it worked on in a professional shop, there are things to be aware of for both a certified mechanic and the at-home enthusiast. Asbestos is a known carcinogen to humans, and if you come into contact with decaying brakes pads or gaskets, the potential of exposing yourself to deadly asbestos fibers is increased. Once asbestos fibers are airborne, they have the ability to be ingested or inhaled, potentially causing serious damage to internal organs and leading to the development of peritoneal mesothelioma.

To limit the risk of exposure, there are a variety of safety precautions that can be taken to protect yourself. Opening up the space in which you’re working will provide proper ventilation and minimize a concentration of harmful substances invading your workspace. Be sure to replace parts carefully as toxic lead-paint dust or dust containing asbestos can flake off old rusted parts. If these parts are seriously damaged and have the ability to degrade and flake easily, use a wet towel when handling them to absorb the dust that would otherwise become airborne. Lastly, be sure to use a respiratory mask at all times and leave clothes that were worn while working on your car in a sealed bag so you don’t track in dust and fibers that could end up harming your loved ones.

Understand your vehicle

New and old vehicles are going to vary in what they’re built with and the process in which they were manufactured. Each vehicle brand has their own way of uniquely creating a vehicle, so understanding the make and model of your vehicle is important to your overall well-being. While crash safety is important, it’s just as important to know what potential toxins may be present within the vehicle as well, as these can potentially impact the health of you and your loved ones over time. Also, if you’re going to be working on a vehicle, be sure to set up proper safety precautions. If the work becomes too dangerous or time-intensive, it might be beneficial to have a certified professional perform the work.


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