Besides making fuel efficient cars and using leading clean manufacturing processes, Honda and Toyota have something else to crow about: the Honda Civic, Honda CR-Z and Toyota Prius have the highest indoor air quality in the industry.
Car interiors are filled with a host of toxic chemicals that off-gas from parts such as the steering wheel, dashboard, armrests and seats. We experience these chemicals as that "new car smell" but they cause a variety of acute and long-term health issues.
Since the average American spends more than 1.5 hours in the confined space of a car every day, toxic chemical exposure inside vehicles are a major source of indoor air pollution.
The Ecology Center released its fourth consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars after testing 200 of the most popular 2011- and 2012-model vehicles for chemicals: bromine (associated with Brominated Flame Retardants); chlorine (indicating the presence of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC and plasticizers); lead; and heavy
These chemicals have been linked to a wide range of health problems such as allergies, birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity, and cancer. Automobiles are particularly harsh environments for plastics, as extreme air temperatures of 192°F and dash temperatures up to 248°F can increase the concentration of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) and
break other chemicals down into more toxic substances.
"Since these chemicals are not regulated, people have no way of knowing the dangers they face. Our testing is intended to expose these dangers and encourage manufacturers to use safer
alternatives," says Jeff Gearhart, Research Director at the Ecology
The Good News
The good news is overall vehicle ratings are improving. The best vehicles today have eliminated hazardous flame retardants and PVC. Today, 17% of new vehicles have PVC-free interiors and 60% are produced without BFRs.
The Honda Civic, which leads the industry, is free of bromine-based flame retardants, has PVC-free interior fabrics and interior trim; and has low levels of heavy metals and other metal allergens.
Honda says it voluntarily reports on the steps they’re taking to reduce and eliminate chemicals in its annual North American Environmental Report.
The Mitsubishi Outlander, which got the lowest scores, contains bromine and antimony-based flame retardants in the seating and center console; chromium treated leather on several components; and over 400 ppm lead in seating materials.
Most improved automakers in terms of average ratings for their vehicles are: VW (+42%) and Mitsubishi (+38%) and Ford (+30%). These represent improvement from the 2009/2010 models to the 2011/2012 models.
Diamler AG (-29%) and Volvo (-13%) had declining scores from 2009/2010 models to 2011/2012 models.
PVC use is declining on a fleet-wide basis. Before 2006, all vehicle interiors had PVC but in 2011/2012, 17% of models were PVC-free.
Flexible PVC often contains hazardous plasticizers, or "softeners,"
called phthalates, which off-gas during vehicle use and are deposited on dust particles and windshields, where they cause "fogging." In recent years, automakers have begun replacing
PVC with polyurethanes and polyolefins, which contain fewer harmful additives and are easier to recycle.
40% of vehicles tested in 2012 contained Brominated
Flame Retardants. BFRs refer to a wide range of chemicals added to materials to both inhibit their ignition and slow
their rate of combustion. Alternatives exist which provide the degree of fire safety required under law without using organic compounds, as well as options in product redesign.
Since 1997, scientists at the Ecology Center have
performed over 20,000 tests for toxic chemicals on 7,000 consumer products, including pet products, vehicles, women’s handbags, back-to-school products, children’s toys, building products, and children’s car seats. The presence of these chemicals is measured with an x-ray fluorescence (XRF) analyzer, a proven, accurate indicator of elements in products.
You can research cars by model and cross refercence for fuel efficiency at www.HealthyStuff.org to find cars that are healthy and fuel-efficient. A widget and mobile phone application are also
available. Visitors to the site are encouraged to contact car manufacturers and ask them to subscribe to voluntary third
party eco labels, such as the TUV Toxproof and Öko-Tex Standard 100, and reduce their use of toxic chemicals in vehicles. A
number of leading automakers, including Ford (TUV) and Volvo (Oko Tex), have already adopted these standards for some of their vehicles.
Here’s the list of the top 10 best and worst cars: