Home » Chemicals in Car Interiors May Cause Cancer—and They’re Required by US Law

Chemicals in Car Interiors May Cause Cancer—and They’re Required by US Law

by Richard A Reagan

Every day, tens of millions of Americans are exposed to carcinogenic chemicals through something as routine as driving their cars.

According to a recent study published in the journal Environmental Science & Technology, the interiors of nearly all modern vehicles contain flame retardants that pose a significant health risk.

These flame retardants are mandated by federal law. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) has required these chemicals in car interiors since the 1970s to reduce the risk of fires in crashes.

However, these substances—specifically tris (1-chloro-isopropyl) phosphate (TCIPP), tris (1,3-dichloro-2-propyl) phosphate (TDCIPP), and tris (2-chloroethyl) phosphate (TCEP)—are now under scrutiny.

Research by Duke University found that virtually all cars they tested contained TCIPP, a chemical currently being investigated as a potential carcinogen by the U.S. National Toxicology Program. TDCIPP and TCEP, also found in most cars, are being evaluated by the state of California as potential carcinogens.

The real concern arises from the fact that these chemicals do not remain bound within the car’s fabrics. They off-gas into the air inside the car, particularly in warmer conditions where temperatures can soar to 150 degrees Fahrenheit, increasing the rate at which these chemicals release into the cabin air. This exposes drivers and passengers to dangerous levels of carcinogens.

The health implications are profound. Studies have linked exposure to these chemicals to a loss of up to five IQ points in children and a fourfold increase in cancer death risk among adults with the highest levels of these chemicals in their blood.

Furthermore, firefighters, who are regularly exposed to smoke from burning materials treated with flame retardants, have voiced concerns about the contribution of these chemicals to high cancer rates among their ranks.

Critics of the current regulations, including Patrick Morrison of the International Association of Firefighters, argue that the safety benefits of these flame retardants are negligible at best. 

Morrison points out that while the chemicals may slightly delay the onset of a fire, they make the resulting smoke smokier and more toxic. This not only impacts victims of car fires but also complicates rescue efforts by first responders.

“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,” said Morrison in a statement.

Given these risks, advocates are calling for a reform of the NHTSA regulations that mandate the use of such chemicals.

They argue that advancements in materials technology could achieve the same safety standards without compromising public health. Similar updates have already been implemented in California for furniture and baby products, reflecting a shift towards safer fire prevention methods.

In the meantime, individuals can mitigate some risks by ventilating their vehicles regularly and parking in shaded areas to minimize the heat buildup that accelerates chemical off-gassing. 

However, as Rebecca Hoehn, a lead researcher from Duke University, points out, more systemic changes are necessary. “Commuting to work shouldn’t come with a cancer risk, nor should children breathe in chemicals that could impair their development on the way to school,” she states.

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