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The air inside all personal vehicles is heavily contaminated with carcinogens, study finds

This discovery raises significant concerns about daily exposure to these chemicals
This discovery raises significant concerns about daily exposure to these chemicals. (CREDIT: Creative Commons)

In a recent study published in Environmental Science & Technology, researchers from Duke University have found that the air inside modern personal vehicles is heavily contaminated with flame retardants, some of which are linked to cancer and other health issues. This discovery raises significant concerns about daily exposure to these chemicals, especially given that the average person spends about an hour each day in their car.

Lead researcher Rebecca Hoehn highlighted the public health implications of their findings, noting, "Considering the average driver spends about an hour in the car every day, this is a significant public health issue. It’s particularly concerning for drivers with longer commutes as well as child passengers, who breathe more air pound for pound than adults.”


The study examined the interiors of 101 cars (model years 2015 or newer) from various locations across the U.S., revealing that 99 percent of them contained tris (1-chloro-isopropyl) phosphate (TCIPP), a flame retardant currently under scrutiny by the U.S. National Toxicology Program for its potential carcinogenic effects.

Other commonly found chemicals included tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TDCIPP) and tris (2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP), both recognized as carcinogens under California's Proposition 65.

These findings are particularly alarming as the car interiors can reach up to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, which significantly increases the rate of off-gassing from materials like seat foam, thus boosting the concentration of these harmful chemicals in the cabin air. This phenomenon was evidenced by higher levels of flame retardants found during the summer months as compared to winter.


Further analysis showed that vehicles with TCIPP in their seat foam had correspondingly higher air concentrations of the same chemical, confirming that the foam is a primary source of flame retardant exposure in vehicle cabins.

Flame retardants are used in cars to meet the Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standard (FMVSS) 302, an open-flame flammability standard administered by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). This standard, established in the 1970s, mandates that materials used inside vehicles resist ignition from open flames.


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Critics of the current standard, like Patrick Morrison from the International Association of Fire Fighters, argue that these chemicals do little to enhance fire safety and may actually increase the risks for occupants and first responders by producing more smoke and toxins during a fire.

Morrison stated, "Firefighters are concerned that flame retardants contribute to their very high cancer rates. Filling products with these harmful chemicals does little to prevent fires for most uses and instead makes the blazes smokier and more toxic for victims, and especially for first responders. I urge NHTSA to update their flammability standard to be met without flame retardant chemicals inside vehicles."


This call for change is supported by the example set by California, where a decade ago, the flammability standard for furniture and baby products was revised to improve safety without the use of flame retardants. This update has not only preserved or enhanced fire safety but has also resulted in reduced levels of these chemicals in American homes.

The health implications of exposure to flame retardants are severe. Epidemiological research indicates that exposure to these chemicals could result in significant cognitive deficits in children, with an estimated loss of three to five IQ points. Additionally, a study found that individuals with the highest levels of a particular flame retardant in their blood had approximately four times the risk of dying from cancer compared to those with the lowest levels.


To mitigate these risks, co-author Lydia Jahl from the Green Science Policy Institute suggests practical measures such as opening car windows and parking in shaded areas to reduce flame retardant concentrations. However, she emphasizes that the ultimate solution lies in regulatory change.

Jahl noted, “You may be able to reduce your exposure to flame retardants in your car by opening your windows and parking in the shade. But what’s really needed is reducing the amount of flame retardants being added to cars in the first place. Commuting to work shouldn’t come with a cancer risk, and children shouldn’t breathe in chemicals that can harm their brains on their way to school.”


The findings of this study underscore the need for updated regulations and standards that prioritize human health and environmental safety over outdated safety measures that may no longer be effective in modern contexts. As this research circulates through the scientific and regulatory communities, it could prompt a significant shift in how vehicle safety standards are formulated, aiming for a balance between fire safety and chemical exposure risks.

For more science news stories check out our New Innovations section at The Brighter Side of News.


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