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A Whiff of Difference

Toyota, Honda, Nissan, Mitsubishi and Mazda intend to make their new vehicles smell better-or, if not better, then at least less toxic. The members of the Japan Automobile Manufacturers Association have announced plans to reduce the use of plastics, vinyls and other substances that contribute to the famous "new-car smell." Why the fuss? Because the fumes can have harmful health effects.

Although many people actually enjoy the smell of a new car, studies have shown that the intoxicating odor comes from volatile organic compounds (VOCs). The fumes from VOCs can cause nausea, headaches, throat irritation and other problems. In vehicles, VOC fumes probably present little long term health risk because drivers and passengers breathe them for relatively short periods and the smell dissipates in about six months.

Nevertheless, Japanese carmakers have already begun to cut back on VOCs in their vehicles. By 2007, they say, their vehicle interiors will meet air quality guidelines set for residential buildings by the Japanese health ministry. As yet, American and European automakers have not set standards for VOCs in their vehicles.

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