Is “Cheap Interior Plastic” Toxic?

I’m not much for giving credence to press releases from self-appointed health and environmental advocacy groups. There’s usually an agenda involved, but data is data. When the Ecology Center of Ann Arbor released their rankings of chemical hazards in new vehicle interiors at the organizations website, Honda’s Civic came out the winner and the Mitusbishi Outlander Sport came out the worst when evaluated for halogens, like chlorine (used in PVC) and bromine (used in fire retardants), and heavy metals like lead, antimony and chromium. You may like that new car smell, but that smell can indeed be toxic, depending on the chemicals involved. Some of the volatiles in that “new car smell” include  benzene, toluene and xylene, which are toxic at certain levels. Benzene is a carcinogen.

Chemicals of primary concern include: bromine (associated with brominated flame retardants); 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.

In recent years, a recurring theme of criticism of some cars is that they use interior plastics that look cheap and fell cheap. I was wondering if any of the cars considered most toxic by the Ecology Center were also cars that reviewers or enthusiasts criticized as using inferior quality materials. Looking at the 10 worst performers, the ‘toxic ten’, there are some cars and manufacturers that you might expect to be there, but there are also a few surprises too. Though there are no luxury brands on the list, not all of the cars come from companies with a reputation for cheap interiors. Only half of the vehicles on the list could be considered economy cars.

Okay, let’s get it out of the way up front. Korean cars don’t do well. The Kia Soul is third most toxic and there are three other cars on the list with roots in Korea: the Soul’s stablemate, the Sportage CUV, whose cheepnis I noted in my generally positive review of the crossover over at TTAC, the Hyundai Accent, and the not-so-dearly departed Chevy Aveo-5, built by GM’s Korean subsidiary, formerly Daewoo.

The national stereotypes don’t really hold, though. The worst vehicle is Japanese and not only do Japanese manufacturers have a reputation for quality, they also have, for the most part, embraced green technologies and/or green marketing. The Honda Civic was, after all, the healthiest car tested (by this test’s standards, of course). Surprisingly, though, as a country, Japan is second worst to Korea, at least on this bottom ten list, with three cars, the Outlander, the Mazda CX-7, and the Nissan Versa.

Volkswagen has been criticized for cheapening and decontenting its sedans for the American market, so you might expect to see a Jetta or Passat on the list but the only VW that appears is the Eos coupe with the retractable roof.

Another surprise on the list is the Chrysler 200SC, which got dinged as the second most toxic car. One fairly constant thing the 200 has gotten high marks from reviewers for has been its interior, much improved over the Sebring’s hard and cheap plastics.

It turns out, though, that much of this has to do with the particular trim used in the car. Some plastics are more toxic than others. Fabric upholstery materials can have toxic fire retardants. Leather can be treated with chromium. That may explain why not all the cars in the toxic ten are cheap cars. It’s not too surprising that one trim line might make the bottom 10 and another trim level of the same car would have fewer chemical issues.

For example, the Mini Cooper S Clubman comes in at #10, with an overall score of 2.8 (the higher the score, the more toxic the car), which the Ecology Center considers to have a medium toxicity compared to other cars, mostly because of chlorine in the seat and door trims. The Mini Cooper Convertible has a similar score of 2.7, with mostly the some components cited. The Mini Cooper S hardtop, though, has a low toxicity with a score of 1.1, apparently because it uses different seat materials.

The same is true of the Chrysler 200. The 200S convertible was considered highly toxic with a score of 3.2. The 200 sedan was much lower at 1.8. The 200S comes with front seats that have bromine and lead.

In any case, there’s probably less reason for alarm than there was years ago. The Ecology Center says that in general cars have been getting less toxic over the years, attributing that improvement to a switch from bromine based fire retardants and also to a decline in the use of PVC in favor of other polymers. Actually, because of the decreasing use of PVC, and because leather and fabric have their own toxicity issues, you can’t really say that a cheap looking interior is likely to be more toxic.

The toxic ten are below. The complete rankings can be found here.

2012 Mini Cooper S Clubman 2.84
2012 VW Eos 2.85
2011 Kia Sportage 2.87
2011 Chevy Aveo5 2.89
2012 Hyundai Accent 2.98
2011 Mazda CX-7 3.08
2011 Nissan Versa 3.08
2011 Kia Soul 3.11
2011 Chrysler 200 SC 3.17
2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport 3.17

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