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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Toxic Car Interiors

Air Date: Week of

A Detroit environmental group tested the dust inside automobiles and found high levels of flame retardants and plastic softeners called phthalates. The auto industry banned two flame retardants for use in cars, but says the one in use has been proven safe. Living on Earth's Rachel Gotbaum reports.


CURWOOD: Americans spend an average of an hour and half in their cars every day. Now, a report suggests that under certain conditions the air you breathe inside your vehicle could do you harm. Rachel Gotbaum reports.

GOTBAUM: Researchers from a Michigan environmental group took dust samples from the inside of 133 automobiles. They found that dust from all the vehicles contained flame retardants and phthalates – the same chemicals used in seat cushions, floor covering, wire insulation and other interior car parts. Jeff Gearhart is the campaign director of the Ecology Center, which sponsored the report.

GEARHART: We found that these chemicals in cars were at levels that are much greater than in homes, and that the exposure in vehicles contributes to an overall body burden, or an overall exposure in the population, that is at a level that causes great health concerns.

GOTBAUM: Phthalates are used to soften plastic and are found in hundreds of products. In animal studies, these chemicals have been linked to reproductive and developmental problems, and also liver damage. Some industries, such as the computer and electronics industry, have begun to phase out plastics that contain phthalates. And so have some car companies, including Volvo, Toyota and Ford.

SHOSTECK: Safety sells in a way it has never sold before.

GOTBAUM: Eron Shosteck is a spokesperson for the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, which represents nine car companies on three continents. He says auto- makers want to do the right thing, but there is not enough proof that these chemicals are actually causing harm to people in their cars.

SHOSTECK: Automakers are constantly looking for ways to do everything better and safer, and so, if these chemicals are proven to be any type of health risk, it goes without saying that automakers would immediately phase them out.

GOTBAUM: By 2003, the automobile industry voluntarily phased out two types of PBDE flame retardants. These flame retardants have been found in human tissue and are associated with reproductive growth and developmental problems. The European Union voted to ban those same flame retardants because of the safety concerns. But EU’s scientists decided to keep one flame retardant on the market called DECA. And the automobile industry continues to use DECA in its cars.

Dan Adsit is an engineer with Ford Motor Company.

ADSIT: You’re going from something that has been studied to death and been found to be safe and effective, so why would you look for an alternative? And, more than that, it is a very effective flame retardant. It saves lives by keeping people safe in their vehicles and in their homes. That’s why industry uses it.

GOTBAUM: But some scientists believe DECA may cause the same health problems as the other PBDE flame retardants. And the European Union plans to revisit its decision to keep DECA on the market because of the questions. Heather Stapleton is a professor of environmental science at Duke University who studies pollutants in dust. Stapleton says there’s new evidence that DECA may actually break down in sunlight and in the body, and become the same PBDE flame retardants that have been banned worldwide.

STAPLETON: It doesn’t seem like a large percentage of the DECA actually is absorbed into human tissue. It’s a very small percentage that actually accumulates. However, if gets in the environment and breaks down in the environment – from sunlight exposure, for example – and it degrades to other forms, then these other forms are going to end up being accumulated into people.

GOTBAUM: Stapleton says more studies need to be conducted to figure out whether people are actually absorbing flame retardants and other chemicals while driving in their cars. But Jeff Gearthart of the Ecology Center says car companies don’t have to wait to do the right thing. He points to Volvo, which had the lowest levels of both phthalates and flame retardants in the study.

GEARHART: This shows that it’s feasible for all companies to step forward and replace these chemicals with safer alternatives and it is critically important for the industry to send a clear message to their supply base that the use of these chemicals in vehicles is no longer going to be tolerated.

GOTBAUM: Volvo has actually sought out alternatives to DECA and products with phthalates, says Gearhart, and he hopes the rest of the automobile industry will also find safer options for their vehicles. For Living on Earth, I’m Rachel Gotbaum.



Ecology Center

Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers


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