If you’re like a lot of us, you might enjoy the distinctive aroma of a new car’s interior. But once you learn what gives it that unforgettable smell, you might decide to hold your nose instead.

That’s because new research has found that what we’re actually inhaling consists of a cocktail of Volatile Organic Chemicals or VOCs, silent but potentially deadly gaseous chemicals that are emitted into the air by the carpets, seats and other materials that make up the car’s interior.

Research teams from Harvard University and the Beijing Institute of Technology measured the concentration of different VOCs in an SUV parked for 12 consecutive days from July 21 to August 1, 2022. Rather than endanger a human being inside the car to measure the various VOCs, the researchers relied on a sensor device to assess the emissions of 20 commonly produced chemicals.

Just 30 minutes daily in a car can expose a person to enough of these carcinogens to put them at risk of exceeding safety standards.

What they found were significant levels of formaldehyde, benzene and other toxic chemicals that may not only irritate our eyes, skin and nose, but can also cause cancer.

Among the most striking findings collected during the 12-day study:

  • Formaldehyde (often used to preserve cadavers) was nearly 35 percent above Chinese national safety standards.
  • Acetaldehyde, also used in perfumes, plastics and synthetic rubbers was present at levels 60.5 percent above the same standard.
  • There were also substantial elevated levels of benzene (used in plastics, synthetic fabrics, nylon, certain dyes).

This isn’t the first time that scientists looked at the VOC risk posed by spending time in a car. A 2021 study found that there could be a “potential risk” for people with substantial commutes or who spent lots of time driving.

This new research suggests people can be at risk even if their commute isn’t a long one. The average American’s commute is 55 minutes back and forth. “These observations increase our understanding of in-cabin chemical transport and emission mechanisms,” the researchers write.

What can you do if you’ve recently bought a new car to protect yourself from sniffing these toxic odors? Even if you were to hold your breath (not a good idea in any case), VOCs would make it into your body through your skin or mucous membranes. A more practical action to reduce your exposure is to open your windows. Not pleasant in winter, rainstorms or stifling hot weather, but certainly do-able on a nice day.

It hasn’t yet been determined what the health risk is over time or how the danger varies depending on how much time is spent in the car. But just 30 minutes daily in a car can expose a person to enough of these carcinogens to put them at risk of exceeding safety standards. There’s also no doubt that continually inhaling formaldehyde, benzene, acetaldehyde and other VOCs can take you down an unhealthy road.

The study is published in Cell Reports Physical Science.