- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

TOKYO (AP) — Anyone who has pulled away from the dealer’s lot in a shiny, new sedan knows the seductive scent of fresh plastic, paint and upholstery that evokes a rush of pride and consumer satisfaction.

But that unmistakable new car smell may be heading the way of the rumble seat: Research linking it to a toxic cocktail of harmful chemicals is spurring efforts by Japanese automakers to tone down the fumes.

Japanese manufacturers, including Toyota Motor Corp., have become the first to set an industrywide goal of reducing cabin concentrations to within government guidelines. The push could spur similar action by U.S. and European rivals, making interior air quality an emerging auto safety issue.

“The industry in Japan as a whole has recognized the need for this and is coordinating efforts,” Toyota spokesman Paul Nolasco said. “Cutting down on the things that lead to these smells is only something that can be better for you.”

The new car smell emanates largely from chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), which leach from glue, paint, vinyl and plastic in the passenger compartment. The fumes can trigger headaches, sore throats, nausea and drowsiness. Prolonged exposure to some of the chemicals can lead to cancer, though no evidence links that to concentrations in cars.

Critics liken the problem to so-called “sick-building syndrome,” which traces some illnesses to similar agents seeping from the walls, carpets and fixtures of new buildings.

Just sitting in a new car can subject riders to toxic emissions several times the limits deemed safe for homes or offices by some health authorities, though the problem tends to dissipate after about six months, according to a 2001 study by Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization.

“We find new car interiors have much higher VOC levels than any building we’ve researched,” research leader Steve Brown said. “Ultimately, what we need are cars with interior materials that produce lower emissions.”

Japanese automakers are trying to do just that. Earlier this year, they agreed to cut cabin levels of 13 VOCs, including suspected cancer-causing agents styrene and formaldehyde, by 2007 to match Japanese Health Ministry guidelines for air quality in homes.

The Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association (JAMA) initiated the drive after tests found some models made by three of the nation’s top automakers failed to meet government recommendations.

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