Sustainability Environment

Car commuters at higher risk of carcinogen exposure: study

Story at a glance

  • Researchers from the University of California, Riverside study chemical exposure to commuters while inside cars.
  • They note that cancerous chemicals used in paint and leathers are also seen in fuel emissions.

Prolonged exposure to gases emitted from cars during regular commutes could expose a driver to cancerous chemicals, new research suggests.

A new study authored by researchers at the University of California, Riverside looks at the volume of chemicals, including benzene, formaldehyde, DEHP, DBP and TDCIPP, that have been detected inside vehicles along with a driver.

They found that commute times of more than 20 minutes saw an exposure that surpassed the maximum allowable daily level based on regulatory levels set by the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment (OEHHA).

When inhaled by drivers and passengers, these chemicals could cause cancer, along with birth defects or other reproductive harm. 

Analyzing dust and air samples collected inside vehicle interiors that travel across California highways, scientists measured the concentrations of benzene, formaldehyde, phthalates and TDCIPP and cross-referenced relevant scientific literature on the subject of emissions in California.

Across all California counties, at least 40-49 percent of commuters had a chance of exposure to unsafe levels of benzene, which can lead to potential cancer risks. Some counties, particularly along the Southern Coast and Central California, reported up to 90 percent of commuters who are at a 10 percent chance of exceeding safe levels of chemical exposures.

The authors note that these chemicals are present in different parts of a vehicle, including carpets, leathers and paints, in addition to fuel emissions. Opening windows may help to dilute the chemicals and reduce the risk, they note.

Speaking to USA Today, however, lead author David Volz notes that the study “does not in any way suggest or conclude that if you spend 20 minutes in your car, you’re going to get cancer.” Rather, it attempts to gauge levels of potentially hazardous exposure. 

“Based on our study, it is possible that a substantial proportion of the population within California may exceed 100% [percent reference doses] for benzene and formaldehyde on a daily basis,” the report concludes. “This study highlights the potential risk associated with inhalation of benzene and formaldehyde for people who spend a significant amount of time in their vehicles.”

The study was published in the journal Environment International.