PVC Softeners Used In Building Products Cited As Health Concern In Autos

Margie Kelly | February 07, 2006 | Materials

A new report finds that the "new car smell" contains dangerous levels of volatile organic compounds, including phthalates, which are used to soften plastics, particularly PVC. According to a new report issued by the Michigan-based Ecology Center, Toxic at Any Speed: Chemicals in Cars & the Need for Safe Alternatives, [1] cars expose passengers to dangerous levels of chemicals that off-gas from upholstery, carpets, wire coverings, and other interior auto parts. [2]

Two of the chemicals highlighted by the study are also common to building products: phthalates, which are ubiquitous in PVC products and polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), used as flame retardants. These groups of chemicals have been linked to birth defects, liver toxicity, impaired learning, premature births, and early puberty, as well as other serious health problems.

Over 90 percent of phthalates manufactured are used in PVC, and have been documented as leaching from interior furnishings such as shower curtains and flooring. [3] Construction materials, furnishings, and furniture products account for approximately 75 percent of all PVC use. Phthalates have also been reported as contaminants of household dust, with babies and young children particularly at risk for exposure, according to the report Sick of Dust, released by Clean Production Action last March. [4]

Brominated flame retardants such as PBDEs, are incorporated into many plastics, including PVC, electrical goods, and foams used in upholstery and carpet pads. Studies have revealed the breast milk of American women has 10 to 100 times higher concentration of PBDEs than European women. [5] Two PBDE products were voluntarily withdrawn from the market last year. Nine states have acted to phase-out or ban certain classes of flame retardants. [6]

The Environmental Protection Agency has determined indoor air pollution is one of the top five environmental risks to public health. Next to homes and offices, Americans spend the greatest amount of time in their cars — more than 90 minutes per day on average, according to the Ecology Center. Concentrations of some toxic chemicals in car interiors were five to ten times higher than those found in homes and offices. Frequent exposure to the sun's heat and UV light inside a car increases chemical levels and may exacerbate their toxicity.

The news that toxic chemicals in cars are released into the air at dangerous levels has alerted consumers to yet another common source of serious chemical contamination. The good news is that safer alternatives exist. "There are safer alternatives to these chemicals, and innovative companies that develop them first will likely be rewarded by consumers," said Jeff Gearhart, co-author of the report.

Phasing-out PVC is the way to eliminate phthalates from cars and buildings. There are already many alternatives to PVC in use, particularly flexible plastics, including polyurethane, polyethylene, polypropylene, and metallocene polyolefins, which already compete with PVC in medical products, wire and cable insulation, and flooring. [7] There are numerous safe alternatives — fiber, fabric, chemical treatment, and barrier product options — that can replace the use of PBDEs, according to a study prepared for the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. [8]

Toxic at Any Speed provides an important bookend to the findings in Sick of Dust, and sends a strong message about the price to our health from filling our lives with materials made from toxic chemicals.


[1] Gearhart, Jeff, Posselt, Hans. "Toxic at Any Speed: Chemicals in Cars & the Need for Safe Alternatives." Ecology Center, January, 2006. http://www.ecocenter.org/cleancar/chemicals.php.

[2] The Ecology Center collected from windshield film and dust samples from cars made by 11 leading manufacturers. Volvo, which has the toughest policies for phasing out these chemicals, was found to have the lowest levels of phthalates and second lowest levels of PBDEs. More testing results can be found on the Ecology Center's website at http://www.ecocenter.org/cleancar/chemicals.php.

[3] Costner, Pat, Thorpe, Beverly, McPherson, Alexandra. "Sick of Dust." Clean Production Action, March, 2005, p. 16, http://www.cleanproduction.org

[4] "Sick of Dust," http://www.safer-products.org. See also "New Study Finds Vinyl Plasticizers a Major Contaminant in Household Dust," Healthy Building News, March 22, 2005.

[5] "Sick of Dust," pgs. 20-21.

[6] "BFR-related Legislation in the United States," Bromine Science and Environmental Forum (as of November, 2005) http://www.bsef.com/regulation/regulator_ov_usa/index.php?/regulation/regulator_ov_usa/regulator_ov_usa.php

[7] "Aggregate Exposures to Phthalates in Humans." Health Care Without Harm, July 2002. http://www.noharm.org/lib/downloads/pvc/Agg_Exposures_to_Phthalates.pdf (PDF)

[8] "Decabromodiphenylether: An Investigation of Non-Halogen Substitutes in Electronic Enclosure and Textile Applications." Prepared by Pure Strategies for the Lowell Center for Sustainable Production. April, 2005. http://www.sustainableproduction.org/downloads/DecaBDESubstitutesFinal4-15-05.pdf (PDF)