A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

What exactly causes "new car smell"?

May 28, 1999

Dear Cecil:

As a patriotic American I am quite familiar with the "new-car smell" all new cars seem to have. What causes that smell, and are there any recorded incidents of dealers or manufacturers spritzing a car with an extra touch of that smell to entice buyers?

Dear Robert:

Had some trouble with this one. I knew, in a general way, that new-car smell was a result of exudates from the plastics and perhaps the adhesives used in the car's interior. These same exudates, it seemed safe to say, were the cause of the film that collected on the inside of a car's windshield. The problem was determining what the exudates were exactly and whether they were bad for you.  These days you have to ask.

The car companies weren't much help. My assistant Jane sends the following report of her conversation with a woman at General Motors:

"Hello, I do research for a syndicated question-and-answer column called 'The Straight Dope' by Cecil Adams. Someone has written to ask what, specifically, 'new-car smell' is. Could you direct me to someone who can help me with this?"

Long pause. "What?"

I repeated my introduction, speaking even more slowly than the first time.

"Just a minute."

After a few seconds she returned with this technical insight:  "Ma'am, that smell comes from the materials inside the car."

"I realize that. I'm wondering if anyone can tell us what, specifically, that smell is."

Another pause. "You mean what the scent is?"

"Yes."

"Just a minute."  After putting me on hold again, she returned with the earth-shattering revelation, "Ma'am, that isn't a scent. It's the smell of the materials in the car."

I KNOW that, you BUTTHEAD.

I love this job.

Many people believe the smell comes from phthalates (THAL-ates), softeners used in plastic manufacture. Phthalates, which don't bond with the material and can leach out over time, are suspected of causing kidney and liver damage and other health problems. Toys R Us recently pulled infants' soft-plastic teething toys from its shelves lest kids get a gutful of the chemicals.

One account of the dangers of phthalates quotes David Ozonoff, MD, chair of the department of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health: "When you buy a new car and smell that great 'new car' smell, you are largely smelling the phthalates that are in the plastics on the inside of the car." Ha! New-car smell is bad for you! Some feel that people with "multiple chemical sensitivity" are particularly at risk. You can even buy a special device to filter the air in your car.

However, when we contacted Dr. Ozonoff and asked him why he thought new-car smell was caused by phthalates, he merely referred us to the folks at Greenpeace. Joe Di Gangi, a biochemist with the Greenpeace toxics campaign, said that while phthalates definitely "outgas" and cause part of the oily residue on your windshield, he wasn't sure if they caused new-car smell. Technical references and several chemists described the smell of phthalates as "slight."

Frustrated, Jane called up manufacturers of new-car sprays--yup, you can use 'em to make your beater smell like new--to ask what was in the stuff. One guy hung up on her. What are these people hiding?

The only research we could find was a 1995 analysis of the air in a new Lincoln Continental (check it out yourself at www.sisweb.com/referenc/appln ote/app-36-a.htm). More than 50 volatile organic compounds were found, suggesting that new-car smell was a mix of lubricants, solvents, adhesives, gasoline, and no doubt some bits from the vinyl, though it's hard to say exactly what. None of these things is necessarily good for you. I hate to cause a panic . . . well, actually I love to cause a panic. All I'm saying is that people like new-car smell, and from long experience we know that if you like something, it's bad.

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