The “new car smell” is mostly caused by an additive in plastics called plasticizers, but some variations of the additive are endocrine disruptors.
A two-year study released in 2001 by the CSIRO in Australia found several health problems associated with these chemicals. CSIRO research scientist, Dr Stephen Brown, reported anecdotal accounts of disorientation, headache, and irritation in some drivers of new cars. He measured pollutant levels in new cars that were sufficient to cause similar effects within minutes in controlled experiments by other researchers. Chemicals found in the cars included the carcinogen benzene, two other possible carcinogens cyclohexanone and styrene, and several other toxic chemicals.
A more recent study in Japan found that the volatile organic chemicals in a new minivan were over 35 times the health limit the day after its delivery. In four months they had fallen under the limit but increased again in the hot summer months, taking three years to permanently remain below the limit. The limits were set by the Japanese health ministry in response to more car owners suffering from sick building syndrome. A Daily Telegraph article on the study described the enjoyment of new car smell as “akin to glue-sniffing“.