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Off-Gassing Upholstery, Highway Emissions Make Cars Toxic Inside and Out

The average commute time in California is 30 minutes, and growing. And according to a new study, the half-hour spent in vehicles that off-gas benzene and formaldehyde—and driving on highways befogged with toxic tailpipe emissions—is increasing some very specific health risks.  

The 30 minutes that commuters spend driving in Los Angeles, San Diego, Orange, Santa Clara, and Alameda counties has been found to increase the risk of cancer by at least 10% and puts the future children of drivers and their passengers at increased risk of birth defects, writes EcoWatch.

The study, recently published in the open access journal Environment International, zeroed in on car upholstery and interior plastics as the source of “unsustainable levels” of benzene and formaldehyde, both known carcinogens.

“These chemicals are very volatile, moving easily from plastics and textiles to the air that you breathe,” said study co-author David Volz, a University of California Riverside professor of environmental toxicology. 

While California’s Proposition 65 does regulate workplace exposure to benzene and formaldehyde, just how these chemical “infiltrate private spaces, like the inside of someone’s car, is less recognized and therefore less regulated,” notes EcoWatch. And while rolling down the window can help dilute exposure, commuters would be trading one suite of toxins for another, as “on-road sources” of air pollution exact their own significant tally of harm.

Citing a report by the Union of Concerned Scientists, EcoWatch adds that African American and Latino/Latina Californians are “disproportionately” exposed to air pollution and to its concomitant harms of asthma, lung and heart disease, and premature death, due to sprawl and the (economically driven) increased likelihood of living further from work.

Governor Gavin Newsom issued an executive order last September mandating that all new passenger vehicles must be zero-emission by 2035. But tackling tailpipe emissions will not solve the problem of long commutes in toxic environments, EcoWatch writes. 

That why Volz is calling for regulations requiring the upholstery and interior plastics in new vehicles to be benzene and formaldehyde free.

“There should be alternatives to these chemicals to achieve the same goals during vehicle manufacturing,” he said.