Study shows we inhale toxic flame-retarding chemicals in our cars

Recent research highlights a troubling issue in modern vehicles: the presence of flame retardants, added to meet safety standards, may be jeopardizing the health of drivers and passengers. The warmer the interior gets, the more toxic air we breathe in while driving.

Flame retardants, commonly used in various commercial products, are intended to slow fire spread. They are also employed in vehicles to comply with official safety standards. However, these chemicals are often semi-volatile.

They can evaporate into the air from the car’s interior surfaces and materials, particularly on warm summer days. Inhaling them is a threat to car passengers’ health and can cause the development of cancer.

These findings come from an American study conducted by Duke University and the Green Science Policy Institute. It was published in Environmental Science & Technology. The survey involved 101 vehicle owners, who were tested on the air quality inside their cars.

They found that the hotter it gets, the more these chemicals are released, with significant implications for those who spend a lot of time in their vehicles, especially in the world’s warmer regions.

Measuring by silicone samplers

Participants in the study used silicone samplers attached to their rear-view mirrors to collect air samples over a week. These samplers, designed to absorb chemicals in the air, indicated a pervasive presence of a class of compounds known as organophosphate esters (OPEs). The most commonly detected OPE, TCIPP, or flame retardant was found in 99 percent of the vehicles tested. It is present in high concentrations in seat foam.

The levels of these toxic particles were considerably higher during the summer months, with concentrations of volatile flame retardants about four times higher than in winter. This suggests that the car seats act as reservoirs, slowly releasing the chemical over time, exacerbated by higher temperatures.

What drivers can do

For drivers and passengers, simple actions like airing out the car before use and rolling down windows during the first few minutes of driving can significantly reduce exposure. Avoiding air recirculation is also recommended. Additionally, frequent hand washing can wipe away the dust that might contain these chemicals.

According to the scientists, the extensive use of these retardants is redundant, as they meet outdated and ineffective (American) safety standards. One of the scientists, Dr. Lydia Jahl, stated, “There are known health risks for potentially nonexistent fire safety benefits.”

Jahl suggests that auto manufacturers should push for regulatory updates and explore material designs that meet safety standards without using these harmful chemicals. She points to specific industries that have already reduced their use of these retardants without compromising safety. The EU funds a program for the development of bio-based flame retardants.

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