There are more than 84,000 individual chemicals and chemical compounds currently used in U.S. commerce. While most are thought to be harmless, it is import to understand the impact these chemicals may have on human health. Additionally, concerns are growing regarding the potentially harmful concentration of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) in indoor environments.

For some people, one attraction to buying a new vehicle is that new car smell. UL experts, however, say that VOCs are the cause of the smell and they are not necessarily good for a person’s health. The reason is that the air concentration of various chemicals and organic compounds found in an automobile may be as much as 10 times greater than it is in other indoor environments.

So What Are VOCs?

VOCs are chemicals emitted from the many parts and components that make up an automobile’s interior space. It includes the dashboard, interior panels, seats, and floor materials.

VOC emissions are exacerbated by being in a small enclosed area. These emissions are highest in new cars, but it is not uncommon for headaches to recur or a smell to reappear if the outside temperature is high or the amount of moisture increases.

According to UL’s whitepaper Vehicle Interior Air Quality: Addressing Chemical Exposure in Automobiles, countries are establishing standards for acceptable chemical concentrations in new automobiles. UL works with manufacturers worldwide to develop these indoor air quality guidelines that help ensure vehicles will meet regulatory and industry requirements. So far the automotive industry has been a principal force in implementing chemical emissions limits and testing requirements for interior components and materials. Manufacturers should select good cabin air filters that reduce pollution from exhaust, pollen and even smoke is one example that can improve interior air quality.

“There are different tests at every stage of development that can lead you to good indoor air quality after production. Follow up testing also helps to ensure the consistency of the materials over time,” says Scott Steady, Product Manager, Indoor Air Quality, UL Environment.

UL tests auto components and materials in different phases. It starts by isolating specific materials such as fabrics, foam, leather and plastics. Then it moves on to testing the full components such as chairs, door panels, headliners and other pieces. Finally, UL tests the overall interior air quality once the vehicle is built completely. The lower the VOC output from the interior components, the lower the concentrations will be when the vehicle is completed.

UL is an independent resource to the industry because of its ability to test to unique requirements, which are tailored for each manufacturer’s needs. UL has expertise in many disciplines and currently has programs that include VOC testing, plastics testing, qualifying electronic automotive components, and evaluating wireless technology. Additional programs include evaluation of textiles, coatings, and paint. By testing during the development and production phases of the vehicle, UL can help manufacturers keep the indoor air quality acceptable and the VOC emissions as low as possible.