The Hidden Danger Lurking in 99% of Cars: Flame Retardants Linked to Cancer and Autism

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For many of us, our daily commute is a necessary part of life. But what if every time you stepped into your car, you were exposing yourself and your loved ones to toxic chemicals linked to cancer, autism, and other serious health issues? A startling new study has found that this is the reality for passengers in 99% of cars sold in the US between 2015 and 2022.1

The study, published in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, tested 101 vehicles across the US and discovered that nearly all of them contained concerning levels of a flame-retardant chemical called tris (1-chloro-isopropyl) phosphate (TCIPP).1 This toxin, which is currently under investigation as a potential carcinogen by the US National Toxicology Program, was found primarily in the seat foam of the tested vehicles.1

Shockingly, the researchers found that TCIPP concentrations in car interiors were two to five times higher in the summer compared to winter due to a process called "off-gassing."1 Study lead author Rebecca Hoehn explained the significance of this finding: "The average person spends about an hour in a car per day, making the findings particularly concerning for drivers with longer commutes as well as child passengers, who breathe more air pound for pound than adults."1

The risks are especially pronounced for infants and young children, who are not only more vulnerable to the effects of these chemicals but also spend significant amounts of time being transported in cars.1 Exposure to flame retardants like TCIPP has been shown to interfere with the thyroid and the critical brain-developing hormones it produces. "Increased exposure could reduce a child's IQ levels by three to five points," the study authors warn, also noting the potential for "learning disabilities, autism and behavioral issues."1  

But it's not just TCIPP that car manufacturers are using. Other harmful flame retardants like TDCIPP and TCEP, which have been linked to neurological and reproductive problems as well as cancer, continue to be added to vehicle interiors.1 Firefighters are sounding the alarm about the toxicity of these chemicals as well. "Firefighters are concerned that flame retardants contribute to their very high cancer rates," said Patrick Morrison of the International Association of Fire Fighters.1

While opening windows and parking in the shade may help reduce exposure, the study authors stress that the real solution is for automakers to stop adding these dangerous chemicals to vehicles in the first place.1 As senior scientist Lydia Jahl put it, "Commuting to work shouldn't come with a cancer risk, and children shouldn't breathe in chemicals that can harm their brains on their way to school."1

With Americans spending more time in their cars than ever before, it's crucial that we demand safer and healthier vehicle interiors. Our daily commutes shouldn't be putting our health and the health of our families at risk.


1. Main N. 99% of cars sold in US between 2015 and 2022 expose passengers to toxin linked to cancer and autism, study warns. Published May 7, 2024. Accessed May 24, 2024.

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