How safe is the air inside your car?

In 1947 the Los Angeles Board of Supervisors established the first air pollution control program in the United States. Since then the air in Los Angeles has improved – with a system-wide move to compressed natural gas for the Metro bus fleet, and a variety of local and federal efforts. However, the city came in number five on a recent poll of the cities with the worst air.

But as bad as the air is all around us – one place we don’t often think about, but should, is the inside of our cars. We spend about 5 to 8 percent of our day in our cars, and the air we breathe while we’re there is a potential problem.

The VIAQ – Vehicle Interior Air Quality – can be less than ideal due to VOCs – Volatile Organic Compounds – off-gassing from everything in the car – the plastic dash, the leather or vinyl seats, the trim, the polyurethane carpeting. All of these materials release chemicals that can have a negative effect on our health and well-being. Chemicals like styrene, ethylbenzene, hexane and toluene, acetaldehyde, formaldehyde and xylene can cause everything from drowsiness, headaches, dizziness, eye, throat and skin irritation, nausea, and fatigue to more serious effects like circulatory system disease, genetic illness, and reproductive and hormonal system degradation.  

And as much as the EPA works to create a safe environment, the agency doesn’t specifically regulate indoor air of any sort. 

There are simple things to do in order to keep the air inside your car as clean as possible.  

  1. Change the Cabin Air Filter. The common recommendation is to buy a new one every 12,000 to 15,000 miles.
  2. Park in the shade, or in a covered parking structure.
  3. Three, if you have to park your car in the sun, crack the windows so some of the chemicals that are off-gassing can escape.  Temperatures inside a closed parked car in the sun can top 190 degrees Fahrenheit, and studies show the hotter the temperature, the more chemicals are off-gassed.
  4. When you’re in your car, close the windows and turn the air conditioning on, so the air you’re breathing is passing through the Cabin Air Filter. It’s also been demonstrated that gas mileage improves on the highway with the windows closed because there is less resistance from all the exterior air whipping through the opened windows. An additional benefit.  
  5. Finally, don’t count on those little green trees hanging from the rear view to do anything for the air quality. They may smell good. But they don’t clean the air.