MARCH 2012

Honda rated top manufacturer in PVC reduction efforts

The Ecology Center released its fourth consumer guide to toxic chemicals in cars at HealthyStuff.org, finding the Honda Civic at the top of this year’s list, and the Mitsubishi Outlander Sport at the bottom. Over 200 of the most popular 2011 and 2012 model vehicles were tested for chemicals that off-gas from parts such as the steering wheel, dashboard, armrests and seats. These chemicals contribute to “new car smell” and a variety of acute and long-term health concerns. Since the average American spends more than 1.5 hours in a car every day, toxic chemical exposure inside vehicles can be a major source of indoor air pollution.

“Research shows that vehicle interiors contain a unique cocktail of hundreds of toxic chemicals that off-gas in small, confined spaces,” said Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center. “Since these chemicals are not regulated, consumers have no way of knowing the dangers they face. Our testing is intended to expose these dangers and encourage manufacturers to use safer alternatives.”

Chemicals of primary concern include: bromine (associated with Brominated Flame Retardants, or BFRs); chlorine (indicating the presence of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC and plasticizers); lead; and heavy metals. Such chemicals have been linked to a wide range of health problems such as allergies, birth defects, impaired learning, liver toxicity and cancer. Automobiles are particularly harsh environments for plastics, as extreme air temperatures of 192°F and dash temperatures up to 248°F can increase the concentration of Volatile Organic Compounds (VOC’s) and break other chemicals down into more toxic substances.

“Automobiles function as chemical reactors, creating one of the most hazardous environments we spend time in,” added Gearhart.

The good news is overall vehicle ratings are improving. The best vehicles today have eliminated hazardous flame retardants and PVC. Today, 17 percent of new vehicles have PVC-free interiors and 60 percent are produced without BFRs.

Top ranking cars in this year’s release are: 1) Honda Civic 2) Toyota Prius and 3) Honda CR-Z. Worst ranking: 1) Mitsubishi Outlander Sport 2) Chrysler 200 SC and 3) Kia Soul. The Civic achieved its ranking by being free of bromine-based flame retardants in all interior components; utilizing PVC-free interior fabrics and interior trim; and having low levels of heavy metals and other metal allergens. The Mitsubishi Outlander contained bromine and antimony-based flame retardants in the seating and center console; chromium treated leather on several components; and over 400 ppm lead in seating materials.

Most improved automakers in terms of average ratings for their vehicles are: VW (+42 percent) and Mitsubishi (+38 percent) and Ford (+30 percent). These represent improvement from the 2009/2010 models to the 2011/2012 models.

Two automakers had overall declining average scores from 2009/2010 to 2011/2012: Diamler AG (-29 percent) and Volvo (-13 percent).

On a fleet-wide basis PVC use is declining. Zero percent of pre-2006 vehicles had PVC-free interiors, as opposed to 17 percent of the 2011/2012 vehicle models.

Flexible PVC often contains hazardous plasticizers, or “softeners,” called phthalates, which off-gas during vehicle use and are deposited on dust particles and windshields, where they cause “fogging.”

In recent years, automakers have begun replacing PVC with polyurethanes and polyolefins, which contain fewer harmful additives and are easier to recycle.

Forty percent of vehicles tested in 2012 contained Brominated Flame Retardants (BFRs) in the vehicle interiors. BFRs refer to a wide range of chemicals added to materials to both inhibit their ignition and slow their rate of combustion. Alternatives exist which provide the degree of fire safety required under law without using organic compounds, as well as options in product redesign.