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Report: your car's interior may be toxic

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Study finds toxic threat in auto interiors

Chemical industry disputes report on dangers; Volvo cited as leader in interior air quality.

Jeff Plungis / Detroit News Washington Bureau

January 30, 2006

WASHINGTON -- A report by an Ann Arbor environmental group that says toxic chemicals are present in automobile interiors at levels five to 10 times higher than those found in homes and offices has sparked protests from the chemical industry and interest from automakers.

The report, "Toxic at Any Speed," was released by the Ecology Center on Jan. 11, amid the din of the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.

The report, based on samples of windshield film and dust samples from randomly selected cars made by 11 leading manufacturers, concludes there is a pervasive safety threat that few consumers know about: Cars can expose their occupants to worrisome levels of toxic chemicals, emitted from the materials used to make seating, carpets, arm rests and wire coverings.

The Environmental Protection Agency has called indoor air pollution one of the top five environmental risks to public health, said Jeff Gearhart, an Ecology Center researcher who co-wrote the report. According to the center's tests, car air quality is worse than what is typically found in buildings and far worse than outdoor air -- at least as far as two types of toxic chemicals are concerned.

The pattern of one of the chemicals cited in the report, a flame-retardant named decabrominated diphenyl ether, or deca-BDE, has been accumulating in the environment and is the subject of a growing number of studies, Gearhart said. The chemical has been linked to health effects in laboratory animals similar to other toxic chemicals, like slowing brain development and causing reproductive problems and cancer.

"They could create a legacy like PCBs," Gearhart said of the flame retardant BDE, referring to a now-banned toxic chemical that found its way up the food chain. "They have all the lineage of that type of environmental disaster. We think the writing is on the wall. The smart people within the auto industry know that."

The Ecology Center cited Ford subsidiary Volvo Car Corp. as an industry leader in following a policy to reduce flame-retardant chemicals as concern has grown in Europe. Volvo and other well-performing companies prove the feasibility of providing safer alternatives, Gearhart said.

After the report, Volvo issued a statement touting its models' "best interior air quality." The test scores were the result of a conscious company policy to reduce interior emissions and improve air filtering, the company said.

"In an age when many people suffer from asthma and allergies, it is only natural for Volvo cars to offer its customers a good environment even inside the car," said Anders Karrberg, Volvo's environmental director.

General Motors Corp. and BMW vehicles performed better than average for all chemicals tested. Mercedes, Chrysler, Toyota and Subaru had higher than average concentrations of both kinds of toxic chemicals.

Some companies had dramatically different results for different chemicals. Hyundai had the lowest score of the 11 auto companies tested for flame retardants -- with only a tiny trace equivalent to what is found outdoors. But it had the highest score for a toxic plastic softening group of chemicals called phthalates.

The Ecology Center said these chemicals have been linked to liver, kidney and reproductive problems in lab animals. In 2003, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention said phthalates could cause developmental problems in children.

Hyundai officials met with the Ecology Center last week to explore ways to reduce their use of phthalates, Gearhart said.

But not everyone is convinced the chemicals cited in the study present a problem.

The Bromine Science and Environmental Forum, the industry association representing the four manufacturers of bromine-based flame retardants, said the Ecology Center was asking manufacturers to abandon a proven chemical for alternatives that may not be as effective. There were 297,000 car fires in the U.S. in 2004, the group said.

"Automobiles are significant heat sources and therefore require the most effective flame retardants available," forum chairman Raymond Dawson said in a statement.

And automakers have already agreed to phase out two of the three flame retardant chemicals cited in the report, said Eron Shosteck, Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers spokesman. The remaining chemical has been studied by the European Union for 10 years and has been proven safe, Shosteck said.

Even so, lawmakers and manufacturers around the world have attempted to reduce exposure to some of the chemicals cited by the Ecology Center.

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