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  • Writer's pictureCorey Provencal

Most and least toxic cars? Tests rank 200 models

By Wendy Koch, USA TODAY

Ever wonder about that “new car” smell?  In a report Wednesday that tests more than 200 vehicles, an environmental group says this off-gassing of chemicals is notably lower in some cars such as the Honda Civic ,Toyota Prius and Honda CR-Z.

Overall, there’s good news. Cars are reducing their use of chemicals, and the best have eliminated hazardous flame retardants and PVC (polyvinyl chloride), according to the fourth consumer guide on the topic by the non-profit, Ann Arbor-Mich. based Ecology Center.

Today, the guide finds that 17% of new vehicles have PVC-free interiors and 60%  are made without brominated flame retardants. Some of these chemicals — found on the steering wheel, dashboard, armrests and seats — have been linked to numerous health problems including allergies, impaired learning and liver toxicity.

“Vehicle interiors contain a unique cocktail of  hundreds of toxic chemicals that off-gas in small, confined spaces,” said Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center, in announcing the findings.

The Vinyl Institute, an industry group, objected to the report. Allen Blakey, its vice president of government affairs, said PVC is widely used in consumer and construction products and is not a “toxic” chemical. He said many of its products are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration or Consumer Product Safety Commission.

“The Ecology Center likes to issue scary reports about materials in cars and homes, but in fact they have no data showing actual injuries, and, in fact, no data showing exposures that would suggest harm,” Blakey said in a statement. ” It is not even certain that their analyses are correct, since X-ray fluorescence devices are sensitive tools that must be carefully calibrated.”

Gearhart said cars are particularly harsh environments for plastics, because high temperatures can  increase the concentration of VOCs (volatile organic compounds) and  break other chemicals down into more toxic substances. “Automobiles function as chemical reactors, creating one of the most hazardous environments we spend time in,” he added.

The scorecard gave tops honors to the Honda Civic, because it said the car has no bromine-based flame retardants in interior components, uses PVC-free interior  fabrics and interior trim and has low levels of heavy metals and  other metal allergens.

In contrast, it gave the lowest overall score to the Mitsubishi Outlander, which it said contained bromine and antimony-based flame  retardants in the seating and center console; chromium treated leather  on several components; and over 400 parts per million lead in seating  materials.

  1. Most improved automakers in terms of the average ratings for their  2011/2012 vehicles — compared to their 2009/20120 models — are  Volkswagen (+42%), Mitsubishi (+38%) and Ford (+30%.)

  2. Two automakers had overall declining average scores: Daimler AG (-29%) and Volvo (-13%.)

  3. In recent years, automakers have begun replacing PVC with  polyurethanes and polyolefins, which contain fewer harmful additives and  are easier to recycle.

John P. Lapotaire, CIEC

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