Driving with the windows down when you are tired may keep you awake in more ways than just the sounds and tactile effects of air currents. It could also keep you from being poisoned and, perhaps, prevent you from killing someone.
Take, for instance, Navindra Kumar Jain, a 63-year-old retired Silicon Valley tech executive who told police that the intense new car smell of his Tesla S made him drowsy enough to fall asleep at the wheel.
When Jain lost control of the Tesla on Nov. 2, 2013, he killed 40-year-old librarian Joshua Alper who had been riding a bicycle in a wide shoulder lane on Highway 1 north of Santa Cruz, California.
Most public reactions to Jain’s claim have been met with derision and disbelief.
But scientific evidence has indicated that many of the chemicals given off by automotive dashboards, upholstery, wiring, adhesives and interior trim can offer the same consciousness-impairing and mind-altering effects as sniffing glue.
In addition to toluene, xylene, benzene and other Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), there are phthalates, flame-retardants, and other Endocrine Disrupting Compounds that are outgassed from car interior materials and form the scummy film on windshields and windows.
And, in a contra-Darwinian sense, people love the fragrance of these VOCs so much that they support an entire industry of sprays and air fresheners containing many of the same petrochemicals and EDCs.
The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration considers toluene (a key compound in “sniffing glue”) to be a Central Nervous System depressant with symptoms that include: “dizziness, euphoria, grandiosity, floating sensation, drowsiness, reduced ability to concentrate, slowed reaction time, distorted perception of time and distance, confusion, weakness, fatigue, memory loss, delusions, and hallucinations.”
The California Department of Public Health said in an official statement that, “Toluene, like most organic solvents, can affect your brain the same way drinking alcohol does.”
Significantly, in addition to VOCs like toluene, xylene, and benzene — all of which can cause leukemia– we found studies that detected more than 100 compounds — many of which are petrochemicals and fit into the California Department of Public Health’s definition of “organic solvents.”
Adverse effects of the VOCs have been found to occur within minutes at concentrations between 7,000 and 33,000 µg/m3, levels that have been found by studies to occur under normal circumstances. These effects include discomfort, drowsiness, fatigue/confusion, eye/nose/throat irritation, headache, and neurobehavioral problems.
Therefore, as a result of the noted conditions that can occur under exposure to VOCs, it would suggest that it is altogether possible that Tesla driver Jain had been impaired, as he has stated, by the sedan’s new car smell, which was teeming with VOCs.
How can you protect yourself?
Tech Exec Jain’s case may turn on whether his attorneys can establish that he was affected by the chemicals from his Tesla’s new car smell.
Regardless, there are some cautions you should know about and actions you can take.
According to Toshiaki Yoshida, chief researcher at the Osaka Prefectural Institute of Public Health, it takes more than three years for a vehicle’s inside air to drop to levels considered safe to breathe.
One study indicated a decrease of about 20% per week. But remember if amounts decreased by 20% the first week, then the second week would see a decrease from 80% to overall 64% the second week, then to 51% of the initial value the third, 41% the fourth and so forth.
In light of those issues the following could help you and your passengers decrease exposure to the chemicals detected:
- After your car has been sitting unused and closed even overnight, when possible roll down all the windows and drive for several minutes with the windows open. This is especially important in warm or hot weather.
- Drive as much as possible with the windows open.
- Avoid using your ventilation system’s recirculate functions except in heavy traffic where the outside air may be unhealthier than that inside your car.
- Don’t use air fresheners.
- Don’t use plastic upholstery, floor mat or other interior treatments, especially those with the “new car smell.” Make sure to tell your carwash you don’t want those.
- While you should not let your guard down, the levels inside your vehicle may be safest at the point when your windows no longer get scummed up from the chemical outgassing.