Is your Car Making you Sick? Signs and Symptoms of Sick Car Syndrome

toxic car syndromeYou have probably heard of “sick building syndrome”, but did you know that “sick car syndrome” is now being recognized as well?

Just as the term sick building syndrome is used to describe symptoms that appear to be directly related to time spent in a particular building—when no specific illness or other cause can be identified—likewise sick car syndrome is being used to describe the possible health effects of toxic materials used in the interiors of automobiles.

And just as sick building syndrome gave rise to the field of Indoor Air Quality (IAQ), there now is a field called Vehicle Indoor Air Quality (VIAQ), to test, investigate and solve the problem of toxic exposures from driving and riding in cars.

Since people who live in industrialized countries spend more than one hour each day in vehicles, toxic exposures from car interiors can really add up and have an effect on health.

The World Health Organization recognizes sick car syndrome, the National Institutes of Health has a whole page about it, and Japan, China, Korea, and Russia now have regulations that limit the amount of air pollutants that may be present in automobile interiors. In 2012, the International Organization for Standardization issued ISO 12219-1, which specifies VOC measurement sampling for passenger vehicles during three modes of vehicle operation (ambient mode, parking mode and driving mode). So sick car syndrome is starting to get attention.

Sick car syndrome could be even more dangerous than sick building syndrome because drivers and passengers are sitting in a very small enclosed space with little ventilation. Such conditions can raise the concentration of chemicals to levels that could be harmful to human occupants.

Materials Used To Make Automobile Interiors Are a Source of Toxic Exposures

dangerous chemicals found in car interiorsThat “new car” smell that is so characteristic of cars fresh from the factory is actually a mix of toxic chemicals emitting from the materials used to make all the component parts of an automobile interior. From the dashboard and interior panels to seat filling and coverings and flooring materials, the majority of automotive interior components are comprised of materials that can emit toxic gasses.

Studies have found that concentrations of potentially toxic chemicals in car interiors may be as much as three times greater than in other indoor environments, depending on the age of the vehicle and other factors.

The actual concentration of chemicals in vehicle interiors varies due to a number of factors, including:

• the age of the vehicle,
• exterior environmental factors (such as heat, humidity, and exhaust from other vehicles)
• user contributions (such as smoking in the vehicle, wearing perfume, or the presence of a child car seat).

Studies have measured from 30 to more than 250 separate volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) in a single vehicle, in total concentrations
as high as 14,000 micrograms per cubic meter.

While concentrations of chemical emissions usually decline as vehicle ages, concentrations can also quickly increases when high temperatures escalated the rate of emissions of volatile chemicals from interior materials.

Exhaust From Other Vehicles Contribute to VIAQ As Well

toxic car exhaustIn addition to the air pollutants being released by materials inside the car interior, other VIAQ pollutants also enter into the car interior from the outside.

The International Center for Technology Assessment studied the concentration of automobile exhaust pollution that collects on the inside of cars and published their findings in In-Car Air Pollution: The Hidden Threat to Automobile Drivers

They found levels of pollutants from car exhaust to often be much higher for automobile drivers and passengers than at nearby ambient air monitoring stations or even at the side of the road. They even exceed the significant exposures experienced by bicyclists, pedestrians, and public transit riders.

Studies done over the past two decades have conclusively demonstrated that the shell of an automobile does not protect passengers inside cars from the dangerous air pollutants produced by car exhaust.

Mold and Bacteria Also Contributes to VIAQ

moldy car affects healthAs if toxic chemical exposures from interior materials and car exhaust weren’t enough, mold can also affect VIAQ from faulty auto air conditioners.

It’s a malfunction of the air conditioner that continues for the life of the car.
Apparently this is a common problem. So common, in fact, that some manufacturers have issued advisories and at least one law firm is advising automobile owners with mold problems to use the Lemon Law in their state to try to get the manufacturer to buy your car back—because manufacturers are buying back moldy cars.

Toxic Chemicals Found in Automobile Interiors

The primary pollutants from interior materials and car exhaust that are found in the air inside cars are:

• VOCs, including benzene, styrene, and formaldehyde
• brominated flame retardants
• polyvinyl chloride (PVC) and plasticizers
• lead and other heavy metals.
• Particulate matter
• Carbon Monoxide
• Nitrogen Oxide
• Ozone

Many of these pollutants are found in levels exceeding indoor and outdoor air quality standards.

The highest chemical concentrations affecting VIAQ are generally found in new vehicles when materials used to make interior components and fixtures are new.

As just one example of chemical concentrations over time, here are the results of a study done by the author of New Cars Are Bad For You! Sick Car Syndrome (Part 1). It shows how toxic exposures in automobile interiors can continue to be released over time.

These measurements are for formaldehyde. Current guidelines in Japan, where these measurements were taken, recommend indoor formaldehyde concentrations of no greater than 0.08 ppm.

Car A (1 month after delivery): 0.34 ppm
Car B (2 months after delivery): 0.31 ppm
Car C (4 months after delivery): 0.27 ppm
Car D (6 months after delivery): 0.23 ppm
Car E (11 months after delivery): 0.23 ppm
Car F (15 months after delivery): 0.19 ppm
Car G (16 months after delivery): 0.21 ppm
Car H (21 months after delivery): 0.18 ppm
Car I (26 months after delivery): 0.19 ppm
Car J (30 months after delivery): 0.15 ppm

The author notes that all of the new cars showed concentrations of 0.23 ppm or more and that levels remained quite high even in the older cars.

Symptoms and Health Effects of Sick Car Syndrome

how to treat sick car syndromeMuch research about the health effects of indoor air pollutants has been done with regards to pollutants found in sick buildings. Most of the pollutants found in sick cars are exactly the same.

The pollutants found in cars have known health effects.

Fire retardants have been linked to cancer, male infertility, autism, and obesity.

VOCs as a group depress the central nervous system. Long-term exposure to VOCs may lead to “organic solvent syndrome,” which produces headaches, irritability, depression, insomnia, agitation, extreme tiredness, tremors, impaired concentration and short-term memory.

The environmental group Greenpeace ( has stated, “Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) is the single most damaging of all plastics” and calls PVC “the POISON plastic.” The basic building block of PVC, vinyl chloride monomer (VCM) itself causes cancer. Phthalates, which are added to VCM to make it soft and flexible, are known to disrupt the endocrine system. They are particularly dangerous to pregnant women and babies. They cross the placenta and into the womb when pregnant women are exposed and they are present in breast milk.

Many heavy metals cause cancer and disrupt the endocrine system. Lead specifically contributes to lower IQ, arthritis, gout, hypothyroid, insomnia, stillbirths and many other health problems.

Of course, each individual will respond to toxic exposures in automobiles in their own unique way, just as each person will respond individually to indoor air pollution in buildings or outdoor air pollution in the environment.

The chemicals found in car interiors can be harmful to anyone.But if you have any type of respiratory problem—such as asthma or COPD—pollutants in car interiors are likely to aggravate your condition. And car interiors are particularly difficult for people with multiple chemical sensitivities.

Babies and children are particularly vulnerable to toxic chemicals in auto interiors because their body systems are not fully developed. Toxic chemicals that are harmful to adults are even more dangerous for babies and children because their smaller body size increases the relative proportion of chemicals to body weight, and they breathe faster than adults, so inhale a greater volume of pollutants.

What You Can Do About Sick Car Syndrome

cleaning inside of car with moldThe good news is that some automakers are going in the right direction to reduce auto indoor pollution. Some automakers have eliminated PVC and fire retardants from their interiors and more are likely to follow. In 2012, The Ecology Center reported 17 percent of new vehicles have PVC-free interiors and 60 percent are produced without brominated fire retardants.

In general, there are three ways to improve indoor air quality, which have been proven effective in buildings:

• ventilate to dilute the concentration of air pollutants or move them out of the space entirely.
• Remove the pollutants from the air using effective filtration
• Remove pollutants at the source.

The simplest thing to do is just open windows to allow pollutants to escape, but that allows more pollutants from car exhaust to enter. Choosing a car with a sunroof, or installing a sunroof in your existing car allows you to ventilate the pollutants from the car interior with a minimum of exhaust coming in.

According to (, never get in a car that has been sitting in the sun, or leave a child or pet in a closed car in the sun. Heat releases more volatile gasses from materials in the interior of your car, making it even more toxic. If your car has been sitting in the sun, open doors and let the car air out for a few minutes before your get in.

The first step to finding a solution to any problem is to become aware of the problem. Now that you know the interior of your car can be one of the most toxic environments you are in each day, you can choose to make the time you spend in your car better for your health.

How to To treat Sick Car Syndrome

If your car has been exposed to toxic vapors or built with some toxic materials it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have to get rid of the vehicle. The EnviroKlenz product line can be used to help mitigate and neutralize the chemical odors that you car is being exposed too. If you have upholstered seating the EnviroKlenz everyday odor eliminator can be used to deodorize the seating and neutralize both chemical odors and malodors from your vehicle without the use of masking agents or toxic chemicals.

Removing chemical odors from your car upholstery and carpeting can be achieved by using the EnviroKlenz everyday odor eliminator in conjunction with a hot water extractor. The first steps that you will want to take are to get the both the seating and carpeting damp and ready for deodorizing(please ensure that your car’s upholstery is water safe). Once the upholstery and carpeting have been dampen, apply the EnviroKlenz everyday odor eliminator to the affected area. If using a spray bottle or pump sprayer, we recommend diluting it in a 4:1 ratio(4 parts water and 1 part EnviroKlenz), allow for 10-15 minutes of contact time. Once dry, you may come behind and extract it out with an extractor or vacuum it up with a shop vacuum.

For more information see our post on How To Remove New Car Odors:

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