'New car smell' becoming less toxic, report says

Automakers are making progress in reducing potentially harmful materials, but car interiors remain polluted, according to the watchdog Ecology Center.

Car interiors and car seats are becoming less toxic, although "new car smell" continues to carry poisons linked to allergies and cancer, according to a report last week by the Ecology Center.

The Ann Arbor, Mich., group found that General Motors made the most progress in reducing potentially harmful materials, followed by Mazda and Nissan, since the nonprofit's initial Healthy Car report last year.

The Acura RDX appears to smell sweeter than other SUVs in a report by the Ecology Center.(Credit: Corrine Schulze/CNET Networks)

The ingredients in question include lead, chlorine, and phthalates from plastics, as well as brominated flame retardants from cushions and padding.

The car with the best marks was the Acura RDX SH sport-utility vehicle. Three Smart cars made the list of 10 best picks, as did two Chevy models and two Toyotas. Also among the lauded models were the Chevy HHR SUV, as well as the BMW M5 and Honda Accord EXL sedans.

Among the worst vehicles, according to the rankings, were the Mitsubishi Eclipse Spider convertible and Suzuki Reno hatchback, as well as the BMW 120i and Volkswagen Beetle convertibles.

In addition, scores of children's car seats fared 27 percent better than in 2007. Sunshine Kids and Graco brands fared especially well, while seats from Alpha Sport and Britax were among the worst in the rankings.

The Ecology Center interpreted its results as proving that harmful chemicals are unnecessary for making safe cars and car seats, and it called for lawmakers to ramp up regulations.

The environmental watchdog group looked at more than 200 popular models of cars released between 2006 and 2008, as well as 60 types of car seats. It used X-ray fluorescence to examine components that drivers and passengers frequently come into contact with, such as steering wheels, seats, doors, dashboards, and armrests.

The presence of the ingredients detected isn't otherwise indicated by manufacturers. Nor do third-party green consumer labels usually describe such details for cars and car seats.

The results of the report can also be found by sending from a mobile phone a text message that includes the make and model of a car or car seat.

New to the report this year is the fuel-economy ratings for cars.

Critics of the Ecology Center's study have charged that it sensationalizes the health risks of cars, whose biggest danger comes from road accidents rather than toxic chemicals.