Can That New Car Smell Kill You? Or Someone Else?

Driving with the windows down when you are tired may keep you awake in more ways than just the sounds and tactile effects of air currents. It could also keep you from being poisoned and, perhaps, prevent you from killing someone.

Take, for instance,  Navindra Kumar Jain, a 63-year-old retired Silicon Valley tech executive who told police that the intense new car smell of his Tesla S made him drowsy enough to fall asleep at the wheel.

When Jain lost control of the Tesla on Nov. 2, 2013, he killed 40-year-old librarian
Joshua Alper who had been riding a bicycle in a wide shoulder lane on Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz.

Most public reactions to Jain’s claim have been met with derision and disbelief.

But scientific evidence, including a major one by Australia’s CSIRO14, indicate that many of the chemicals given off by automotive dashboards, upholstery, wiring, adhesives and interior trim can offer the same consciousness-impairing and mind-altering effects as sniffing glue.

The CSIRO study and others have found that — in addition to toluene, xylene, benzene and other Volatile Organic Counpounds (VOCs)(1-4) , there are phthalates (5-7), flame-retardants(11,12) and other Endocrine Disrupting Compounds that are outgassed from car interior materials and form the scummy film on windshields and windows.(5-7).

And, in a contra-Darwinian sense, people love the fragrance of these VOCs so much that they support an entire industry of sprays and air fresheners containing many of the same petrochemicals and EDCs. (See: shop on Google for new car smell)

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration considers toluene (a key compound in “sniffing glue”) to be a Central Nervous System depressant(8) with symptoms that include: “Dizziness, euphoria, grandiosity, floating sensation, drowsiness, reduced ability to concentrate, slowed reaction time, distorted perception of time and distance, confusion, weakness, fatigue, memory loss, delusions, and hallucinations.”

The California Department of Public Health says in an official statement that, “Toluene, like most organic solvents, can affect your brain the same way drinking alcohol does.”

Significantly, in addition to VOCs like toluene, xylene, and benzene — all of which can cause leukemia(10) — we found studies that detected more than 100 compounds — many of which are petrochemicals and fit into the California Department of Public Health’s definition of “organic solvents.”

The CSIRO study stated that, “Controlled exposures of human subjects to a 22-compound mixture at TVOC [Total VOC] concentrations of 7,000–33,000 µg/m3 have observed effects within minutes, such as subjective reactions (odour, discomfort, drowsiness, fatigue/confusion), eye/nose/throat irritation, headache, and (in symptomatic subjects) neurobehavioural impairment”

Further, the CSIRO study noted conditions which suggest that it is altogether possible that Tesla driver Jain had been impaired, as he has stated, by the sedan’s new car smell.

“Investigation into VOCs in new cars has been limited. Bauhof and Wensing (1999) described a standardised test procedure used in Germany in which VOC concentrations were measured at car interior temperatures of 23–65°C and an unspecified ventilation rate. 

“TVOC concentrations of 35,000–120,000 µg/m3 were reported for six new cars (test temperature not specified), these concentrations decreasing exponentially over a 40-day period to about 10,000–30,000 µg/m3. VOCs consisted of aromatics, glycol ethers and esters, aldehydes, ketones and amines. 

“Grabbs et al. (1999) screened four new cars in the USA, all after being closed for one hour and without temperature control. Three exhibited initial TVOC concentrations of 300–600 µg/m3 and the fourth 7500 µg/m3. The latter decreased exponentially by about 90% within three weeks.”

Click here for a chart of chemicals from Grabbs, et. al.

Click here for a chart of chemicals from Faber, et. al.

A sampling of the top 10 petrochemicals found were:

Methylcyclohexane is also used in perfumes for its minty fragrance. This compound is closely related to 4-Methylcyclohexanemethanol, MCHM, spilled in the vast West Virginia chemical spill in January 2014. Ironically, MCHM has been patented for use in air fresheners.  (13)

Undecane, the National Toxicological Program says, is an organic solvent and Central Nervous System depressant.

Ethylbenzeneis classified by the EPA as the same sort of organic solvent with Central Nervous System effects. Used as a perfuming agent in cosmetics.

As time allows, we’ll work our way through those lists above, and draw a few more connections and contextual touchpoints.

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Many of the compounds mentioned above have not been studied in enough detail to assess their human health effects. In addition, no studies have been located that assess the effects on humans of possible interactions among the various chemicals.

The windshield scum of phthalates and flame retardants will be examined in a future post.

The footnotes in this post will also be re-arranged and cleaned up as time and the location of more original source documents allow.

How can you protect yourself?

Tech Exec Jain’s case may turn on whether his attorney’s can establish that he was affected by the chemicals from his Tesla’s new car smell.

Regardless, there are some cautions you should know about and actions you can take.

According to Toshiaki Yoshida, chief researcher at the Osaka Prefectural Institute of Public Health, it takes more than three years for a vehicle’s inside air to drop to levels considered safe to breathe.

The CSIRO study indicated a decrease of about 20% per week. But remember if amounts decreased by 20% the first week, then the second week would see a decrease from 80% to overall 64% the second week, then to 51% of the initial value the third, 41% the fourth and so forth.

The tests done by Overton & Manura(1) indicated that the levels of interior pollutants decreased after two months, but that they remained temperature dependent.

In light of those issues the following could help you and your passengers decrease exposure to the chemicals detected:

  1. After your car has been sitting unused and closed even overnight, when possible roll down all the windows and drive for several minutes with the windows open. This is especially  important in  warm or hot weather.
  2. Drive as much as possible with the windows open.
  3. Avoid using your ventilation system’s recirculate functions except in heavy traffic where the outside air may be more unhealthy than that inside your car.
  4. Don’t use air fresheners.
  5. Don’t use plastic upholstery, floor mat or other interior treatments, especially those with the “new car smell.” Make sure to tell your carwash you don’t want those.
  6. While you should not let your guard down, the levels inside your vehicle may be safest at the point when your windows no longer get scummed up from the chemical outgassing.

(1) Identification Of Volatile Organic Compounds In a New Automobile Santford V. Overton & John J. Manura, Application Note, Scientific Instrument Services, 1999
(2) Air Pollution in New Vehicles as a Result of VOC Emissions from Interior Materials Joanna Faber*, Krzysztof Brodzik, Anna Gołda-Kopek, Damian Łomankiewicz, Pol. J. Environ. Stud. Vol. 22, No. 6 (2013), 1701-1709
(3) VOLATILE ORGANIC COMPOUNDS IN NEW AUTOMOBILES: SCREENING ASSESSMENT,By James S. Grabbs,1 Richard L. Corsi,2 and Vincent M. Torres3, J. Environ. Eng. 2000.126:974-977.
(4*) Toshiaki Yoshida, chief researcher, Osaka Prefectural Institute of Public Health Original source study still being sought. (Web site accessed Feb 9, 2014)
(5) Contributions to Fogging From Phthalate Plasticizers, D. JACHOWSKI. Exxon Chemical International, Brussels, Belgium, and, A. C. POPPE, Baarn, The Netherlands, JOURNAL OF VINYL & ADDITIVE TECHNOLOGY, MARCH 1996, Vol. 2, No. 1
(6) Fog Performance of Ester Plasticizers, Kimberly Stefanisin, The HallStar Company, Bedford Park, IL, Presented at the March, 2002 Technical Meeting of the SPE Palisades Section
(7) Determination of the Fogging Characteristics of Interior Automotive Materials, Society of Automotive Engineers, Standard SAE J1756, (Web site accessed Feb 9, 2014)
(10) Am J Ind Med. 2008 Nov;51(11):803-11. doi: 10.1002/ajim.20592. Risk of leukemia and multiple myeloma associated with exposure to benzene and other organic solvents: evidence from the Italian Multicenter Case-control study. Costantini AS, Benvenuti A, Vineis P, Kriebel D, Tumino R, Ramazzotti V, Rodella S, Stagnaro E, Crosignani P, Amadori D, Mirabelli D, Sommani L, Belletti I, Troschel L, Romeo L, Miceli G, Tozzi GA, Mendico I, Maltoni SA, Miligi L. Risk of leukemia and multiple myeloma associated with exposure to benzene and other organic solvents: evidence from the Italian Multicenter Case-control study. Costantini AS, Benvenuti A, Vineis P, Kriebel D, Tumino R, Ramazzotti V, Rodella S, Stagnaro E, Crosignani P, Amadori D, Mirabelli D, Sommani L, Belletti I, Troschel L, Romeo L, Miceli G, Tozzi GA, Mendico I, Maltoni SA, Miligi L.
(11) Environmental Profiles of Chemical Flame-Retardant Alternatives for Low-Density Polyurethane Foam | Design for the Environment (DfE) | US EPA,
( Web site accessed Feb 9, 2014),
(12) Section 3 of Environmentally Preferable Options for Furniture Fire Saftey: Low-Density Furniture Foam, Volume 1 ( Web site accessed Feb 9, 2014)
(13) Nagamura, Yusei; Satoh, Yuuichi; Tatsumi, Jun; Yamamura, Kunihiro. “Method for producing alcohols such as cyclohexanedimethanol” (European Patent Application EP1090902).
(14) Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in new car interiors, Brown, S. K.; Cheng, Min, CSIRO Fifteenth International Clean Air & Environment Conference, 26-30 November, 2000, Vol 1, Pages: 464-468, procite:bae3deda-6166-4e69-8887-22f64ed05e14
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