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An Olfactory Blow: That New Car Smell

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There are some things in life you can count on. When you purchase a major appliance, it’s bound to go on sale the following week. If you want it to rain, plan a picnic. When you buy a new car, it comes complete with that new-car smell.

Or does it? I’m afraid you can no longer count on that nice, reassuring new-car smell to permeate your nice, new car. (I know. I feel the same way.)

As it turns out, my driving wasn’t the most dangerous thing I’ve subjected my passengers to. I’ve apparently also exposed them to potentially hazardous chemicals. For the record, I was unaware of any such liability until a recent “Wall Street Journal” article clued me in. According to the story, Australia’s Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organization (CSIRO) concluded that the oh-so-lovely new-car smell is really a bunch of oh-so-unhealthy fumes given off by all the plastics, lubricants, coatings, cleaners and glues that make up the car’s interior. It’s really all the fumes that come from benzene, acetone, styrene and other “-enes and -ones” that can, in fact, make people sick.

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When I bought my new car two years ago, I loved hearing my passengers say, “Ahhh, that new-car smell.” Little did I know that I was subjecting my friends and family (and anyone else I could coax into going for a ride) to “volatile organic compounds.”

Maybe my thinking is tainted (probably too many new-car fumes), but gosh, isn’t it worth the risk? Isn’t it worth the headaches, lung irritation and swelling that occasionally may occur for the first six months of driving a new car? After all, without that smell, how would we know we were driving a new car?

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Despite my concerns, chemical companies that manufacture those vehicle interior offenders are making changes to keep the fumes from seeping out of those shiny new dashboards, steering wheels and vinyl seats.

Chemical giants Dow Chemical Company and Shell are boasting smell-free and stabilized plastics, saying the general public wants rid of the fumes (no one asked me).

I think I speak for all new-car buyers when I say, “DON’T DO IT!” We want those nasty chemicals. No, no … we need those nasty chemicals. Leave my volatile organic compounds alone! (Come on … what’s next? Cigarettes with filters?) I need that new car scent.

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The good news is, where there’s a hazard, there’s a hope Ñ for some inventive type to come through with a money-making scheme that just might work. In this case, it’s a fragrance company, which is trying to bottle the new-car smell. So far, the bottled scent hasn’t had the olfactory success of its chemical-laden cohort.

But we don’t have time for 20 years of research and development. Many new car buyers already report a decrease in that new-car smell Ñ just a couple months after making the purchase. (Scary thought, huh?)

If, by chance, you happen to be concerned about the dangers of the new-car smell, Australia’s CSIRO suggests having plenty of outside air entering the new vehicle for at least the first six months of driving. Of course, doing so during winter months could make you sick. And, if there happens to be other traffic around, you’re exposing yourself to God-knows-what-other pollutants pouring out of surrounding vehicles.

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Although in taking these precautions you increase your chances of dying from pneumonia or carbon monoxide poisoning, rest assured: You won’t suffer any side effects from your new-car smell.

Writer Cheryl McMullen is managing editor of BodyShop Business.

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