New car drivers exposed to toxic emissions

December 19, 2001

New car headaches may involve more than minor warranty problems.

Research by CSIRO has found high levels of air toxic emissions in new motor vehicles for up to six months and longer after they leave the showroom.

Dr Steve Brown, head of CSIRO's Air Quality Control research says, "Just as air inside our homes and workplaces is often much more polluted than the air outside, so sitting in a new car can expose you to levels of toxic emissions many times beyond goals established by Australia's National Health & Medical Research Council (NHMRC)".

During its two-year study using three new motor vehicles from three weeks of their delivery to purchasers, CSIRO became aware of anecdotal reports, such as:

· A solicitor who was ill for several days (headache, lung irritation, swelling) after collecting a new locally built car and driving it for only 10 minutes (the solicitor eventually swapped it for an 18-month-old car, which did not have any effect on her health)

· A government worker who felt ill when driving new government cars during the first 6 months after their delivery

· A chemically sensitised person who felt "spaced out' when in any new car

· A salesman who regularly updated his locally built car and found he became lethargic on long trips (e.g. from Melbourne to Geelong) when the car was new

Dr Brown says, "Measurements made during the CSIRO study found total volatile organic compound (TVOC) concentrations were initially very high (up to 64,000 micrograms per cubic metre) in two Australian-made cars which reached the market 3-10 weeks after manufacture".

Controlled exposures of human subjects by other researchers to a 22-compound mixture at concentrations of less than half this have produced effects within minutes, such as subjective reactions (odour, discomfort, drowsiness, fatigue/confusion), eye/nose/throat irritation, headache and (in symptomatic subjects) neuro-behavioural impairment.

Brown says, "These levels decreased by approximately 60% in the first month, but still much exceeded the NHMRC indoor air goal of 500 micrograms per cubic metre".

The third car was imported, reaching the market four months after manufacture when the concentration of TVOCs was 2000 micrograms per cubic metre.

"This is still four times more than the recommended goal and remains a concern," says Dr Brown.

Air toxics being emitted inside new cars during the CSIRO study and the effects they may cause include:

· Benzene - a known human carcinogen for which an annual exposure goal of 16 micrograms per cubic metre has been recommended in the UK

· Acetone - a mucosal irritant

· Cyclohexanone - a possible human carcinogen

· Ethylbenzene - a systemic toxic agent

· MIBK - a systemic toxic agent

· n-Hexane - a neurotoxic agent

· Styrene - a probable human carcinogen

· Toluene - a central nervous system dysfunction agent

· Xylene isomers - a foetal development toxic agent

Dr Brown says, "To avoid some exposure to this toxic cocktail, people who buy new cars should make sure there is plenty of outside air entering the vehicle while they drive, for at least six months after the vehicle has been purchased, although this may not be possible in heavy traffic due to air toxics from car exhausts. Ultimately, what we need are cars with interior materials that produce low emissions".

CSIRO is also keen to develop a Green Air Label to assist consumers to choose healthy indoor air environments and environmentally friendly products.

David Lang, Director Technical Services of the Australian Automobile Association says, "CSIRO's work shows the need for further study on motorists to identify any effects that may impair driving".

RACV's Environmental Programs Officer, Kathryn Hannan says, "The RACV would like to see further investigations conducted into the potential health effects of VOC emissions from new car interiors".

Petar Johnson, President of the Australian Environmental Labelling Association, says, "This study has conclusively shown that designers of car interiors must give greater consideration to the materials that are used in furnishings. In order to continue to deliver cars responsive to consumer health and choice for the 21st century with innovations such as dual fuel and recyclable parts, the subject of VOC and human toxicity exposure while driving must be high on the priority list for car redesign for environment programs".

The exposure of Australians to air toxics is part of an ongoing study by CSIRO Thermal & Fluids Engineering which has so far studied new homes, paints, wood-based panels and furniture, unflued gas heaters, workplaces and offices.

CSIRO estimates that indoor air pollution costs the Australian community in excess of $10 billion a year in illness and lost productivity.

The results of the air toxics program are being passed onto Government regulators and agencies as they come to hand for further action.

CSIRO says there's now an urgent need to move from this assessment phase to implementing control strategies, such as the Green Air Label, across all indoor air environments.
More information:

Dr Dilip Manuel, Business Development Manager CSIRO Thermal & Fluids Engineering +61 3 9252 6073

Ken Anderson, Manager Communications, + 61 3 9252 6172
CSIRO Built Environment +61 414 457 214

CSIRO Australia

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