Internet InfoMedia americans breathe in carcinogenic chemicals found in cars study

Researchers have found that a source of carcinogenic chemicals is in Americans’ cars – but there may be a way to reduce your risk.

Environmental Science and Technology, a peer-reviewed scientific journal, published a study called “Flame Retardant Exposure in Vehicles Is Influenced by Use in Seat Foam and Temperature” on Tuesday.

The study explains that Americans breathe in chemicals from the flame retardants in their vehicles. The chemicals can cause issues ranging from developmental neurotoxicity to thyroid hormone dysregulation and even cancer.

The types of chemicals found in flame retardants range from polybrominated diphenyl ethers (PBDEs), which were common in cars until the early 2000s, to alternative brominated flame retardants (BFRs) and organophosphate ester flame retardants (OPEs). 

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Close-up of leather car seats

Interior detail of an electric car, taken on August 4, 2015.  (Neil Godwin/T3 Magazine/Future via Getty Images)

The federal government requires a level of flame retardants in vehicles. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) mandated the use of flame retardants in the 1970s.

“Flame retardant (FR) chemicals are intentionally used in electronics, furnishings, and building materials to meet flammability standards,” the study explains.

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“Most [flame retardants] are used in an additive manner (i.e., not chemically bound), and many are semivolatile, indicating that they can be present in both the gas phase and partially in the condensed phase (e.g., particles and surfaces), depending on environmental conditions.”

Aerial view of congested traffic

A motorcycle officer weaves through traffic on a Los Angeles freeway during the evening rush hour on April 12, 2023 in Los Angeles, California. (FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)

Americans who drive professionally or face long commutes may be at a higher risk of harm from the chemicals.

“These findings highlight that commuters are likely to be exposed to [flame retardants], especially those with longer commutes or those who drive vehicles full time as part of their employment,” the paper read. 

“In addition, children, who breathe a greater amount of air per kg body weight compared to adults, would also be at risk of greater exposures for equivalent commuting times.”

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Front view of a car's front seats

An interior view of a vehicle on April 2, 2024 in Beijing, China (VCG/VCG via Getty Images)

Drivers and passengers in warmer states may face a greater risk of breathing in the flame retardant chemicals. But rolling down car windows, turning off the AC and parking in covered garages may help reduce exposure to the dangerous chemicals, researchers say. 

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“Increasing ventilation by opening vehicle windows and avoiding recirculating interior cabin air may also reduce exposures,” the study said. “However, the greatest reduction in exposure from vehicle air would come from significantly reducing the amount of FRs added to personal vehicles.”

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