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Car Sick: The Toxic Soup Inside Your Car

Car Sick: The Toxic Soup Inside Your Car
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A cocktail of chemicals in your car could be making you sick. Learn how to protect yourself.

Americans spend an average of six percent of their time inside cars, creating a significant route of exposure to a host of harmful chemicals. Analysis reveals the presence of hundreds of toxic chemicals inside cars, including plasticizers, flame retardants, volatile organic compounds, particulate matter, and more. Exposure to these chemicals can lead to a variety of health problems, especially since cars are just one way we come into contact with these common chemicals. You can reduce these exposures but avoiding these chemicals altogether may be impossible. Therefore, it is essential to support the body’s ability to detoxify.

Chemicals are added to interior components of the car during manufacturing to add certain characteristics, such as flame resistance or to make plastic softer. Hundreds of chemicals have been detected in the interior air of cars, imparting what many of us know as “new car” smell. These include brominated flame retardants, volatile organic compounds, polyvinyl chloride (PVC), and heavy metals like lead, which is still used in car paint. Exposure to particulate matter from car exhaust, particularly when traffic is heavy, is another concern for human health: in fact, studies have found air quality to be worse inside cars than outside. The World Health Organization has recognized this toxic soup as a major threat to human health.

This affects all of us, but particularly a growing subset of the population with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS). MCS is a condition that affects an estimated 13 percent of the US population, nearly 43 million people. These individuals experience acute, chronic, and disabling health effects like headaches, dizziness, breathing difficulties, heart palpitations, nausea, and asthma from exposures to common chemicals and pollutants at low levels. MCS can be initiated by a major exposure to a pollutant or after long-term, low-level exposures to chemicals. Symptoms are then triggered when patients are exposed to problematic chemicals even at very low levels. MCS is poorly understood in the medical community. Researchers are not sure what causes it, and there are no agreed-upon treatment guidelines. Some speculate that certain patients with MCS have a genetic variation that prevent the production of glutathione, thus impairing the body’s ability to detoxify.

This condition can hamper routine activities: of those with MCS, many report that they cannot access places that use fragranced products like air fresheners. Sixty percent of those with MCS report that they lost workdays or a job due to fragranced products in the workplace.

We’ve reviewed the health effects of some of these chemicals in previous coverage. For example, flame retardants have been linked with thyroid disruption, cognitive problems, lower IQ, cancer, and advanced puberty. Particulate matter, which can penetrate deep into the lungs, can cause premature death, heart attacks, respiratory problems, aggravated asthma, and more. One study found a small increase in exposure to particulate matter was associated with a 15% increase in COVID death rate. Volatile organic compounds are chemical compounds emitted as gases such as benzene, acetone, formaldehyde, and styrene; they similarly cause a host of negative health effects. Phthalates used in PVC disrupt the endocrine system; lead is a neurotoxin that lowers IQ. All of this is worse for disadvantaged communities, who get exposed to a higher volume of these pollutants. A report from the Environmental Protection Agency, for example, found that African Americans are more likely to live near landfills and industrial plants that pollute the air and water, and because of this, they are three times more likely to die from air pollutants. For these individuals, exposure to particulate matter from the exhaust of other cars while on the road is adding fuel to the fire.

Clearly there is a spectrum for chemical sensitivity, with MCS patients representing those who are most vulnerable. But repeated exposures to these chemicals could be moving those without MCS closer to a state of health where they become more sensitive to these exposures. And whether or not one has MCS, it is still a good idea to limit our exposure to these chemicals and pollutants because they can still cause cancer, hormone disruption, and other health effects.

When it comes to determining your level of exposure, there are a few things to keep in mind. Newer cars are more likely to have higher concentrations of these chemicals. Additionally, increasing the temperature of the car causes more chemicals to “off-gas,” so parking the car directly in the sun will cause more chemicals to leach off the interior and into the air. Sunlight (UV) exposure can cause some chemicals to break down into more harmful components. Concentrations of chemicals tend to decrease as the vehicle ages. The Ecology Center created a report in 2012 ranking the best and worst cars in terms of dangerous chemicals used; they also have a searchable database where you can see if they’ve tested your car or other products.

There are some strategies to avoid the worst of these exposures. Avoiding newer cars where chemical concentrations are highest is one way. You can also “bake out” your car to speed up the release of chemicals by leaving it in the sun with the windows cracked to make sure the chemicals are not reabsorbed. After airing it out, clean all surfaces inside the car. Additionally, air purifiers can be purchased for cars to filter out some of these pollutants. Keeping your distance from other cars on the road can help reduce exposure to exhaust.

Mold and bacteria in the air vents can also contribute to poor air quality inside cars that can damage your health. Mold can cause headaches, sore throat, runny nose, coughing, fatigue, and more. Common signs that mold is growing in your air conditioner are bad odors and cold air blockage from the AC. You can run the heat with the vents closed for about ten minutes to dry out the vents or use a long brush to reach inside the vents to clean out the mold. But if you clean mold yourself you have to take precautions because agitating it makes it aggressive and more dangerous and frees it directly into the air to be breathed even more.  If the smell remains, you may need to have a mechanic professionally clean the parts.

Before you turn to electric cars as “cleaner” options, consider that you’re sitting on top of a massive battery. Experts have warned that these cars may be cancer-causing as they emit extremely low frequency (ELF) electromagnetic fields, which are known to cause biologic effects even in limited exposures.

Cars are not the only source of exposure. Off-gassing of dangerous chemicals also occurs in new homes and buildings, with new carpet being a particular problem. In over 400 carpet samples tested, neurotoxins were present in 90% in sufficient quantities to kill mice. Similar strategies (“baking out” a new house, for example) can be used to address these concerns.

Even after taking all the possible precautions, it is likely that you will still be exposed to harmful chemicals. Our body has processes for eliminating toxins, and there are a number of supplements that can help support these functions, including: vitamins A, C, E, and B vitamins, minerals like iron, calcium, zinc, magnesium, and selenium, flavonoids, green tea extracts, and n-acetyl cysteine (NAC) which supports glutathione production, the body’s most important antioxidant. Other ways to help your body detox are drinking water, eating whole fruits and vegetables, getting enough fiber, reducing stress, getting enough sleep (7-9 hours a day), and reducing or eliminating sugar, alcohol, and refined flour-based foods.

It is our exposure to chemical toxins and pollutants, in addition to poor diet and foods grown in nutrient depleted soil, that has helped create an epidemic of chronic disease. Our healthcare system is overburdened trying to address these chronic ailments with pharmaceutical drugs that are dangerous, expensive, and often don’t work. At the same time, our food system relies on dangerous chemicals that degrade human health and prioritizes subsidizing mono crops like corn and wheat with low nutritional value. We need to shift to a regenerative approach to human health as well as agriculture. This means reducing toxic inputs into our soil, water and air, and increasing the availability of nutrient-dense foods. Healthy food can support a regenerative approach to healthcare where diet, proper supplementation, and the avoidance of toxins and pollutants address key sources of our chronic disease epidemic. Until we make this transition, we will continue to pay more and more for healthcare that doesn’t optimize our health.

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