Drivers at risk of inhaling 'cancer-causing chemicals in their cars', new study warns

Driving car
Scientists have hailed this as a 'significant public health issue' -Credit:Getty Images/iStockphoto

Motorists are unwittingly inhaling cancer-causing chemicals inside their cars, a startling new study has revealed.

Researchers have raised the alarm over the air quality in nearly all vehicles being "polluted" with harmful flame retardants, some of which are known or suspected to cause cancer.

These substances are added by car manufacturers to various components like seat foam to comply with an "outdated" flammability standard that doesn't necessarily translate to increased fire safety, as per findings in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.

Dr Rebecca Hoehn from Duke University, the lead author of the study, expressed concern: "Our research found that interior materials release harmful chemicals into the cabin air of our cars. 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."

In an extensive analysis, the research team tested the interior air of 101 cars, all model year 2015 or newer, across the United States, the Mirror reports.

Their investigation discovered that a staggering 99 per cent of these vehicles contained tris (1-chloro-isopropyl) phosphate (TCIPP), a flame retardant currently under scrutiny by the US National Toxicology Program as a potential carcinogen.

Most vehicles were found to contain other organophosphate ester flame retardants, which included substances such as tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TDCIPP) and tris (2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP), both of which are recognised as carcinogens under California Proposition 65.

According to scientific research, these and other flame retardants can also lead to neurological and reproductive harm. Around half of the cars involved in the study were tested during both winter and summer seasons.

During warmer weather, scientists noted an increase in flame retardant concentrations due to "off-gassing" from inside elements like seat foam a process that is intensified by higher temperatures. The internal temperature of a vehicle can rise to approximately 150 degrees Fahrenheit (or 65.5 Celsius).

The research team also looked at samples of seat foam taken from 51 of the cars that were part of the study.

Cars with the suspected carcinogen TCIPP present in their foam were typically found to have higher concentrations of TCIPP in their air, which provided evidence of foam being a source of the flame retardant in car interiors. Flame retardants are used in seat foam to satisfy Federal Motor Vehicle Safety Standards (FMVSS 302), set by the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA).

These standards have remained largely unchanged since their introduction in the 1970s.

Patrick Morrison, who supervises Health and Safety for 350,000 fire-fighting personnel across North America within the International Association of Fire Fighters, expressed: "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."

A recent study has suggested that those with higher levels of a particular flame retardant in their blood could be at around four times greater risk of dying from cancer than those with lower levels. One of the study's co-authors, Dr Lydia Jahl, from the Green Science Policy Institute, stated: "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."

She also warned: "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."

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