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Oooh, that smell! Can't you smell that smell? And could it be killing you?

Every once in a while I will share a favorite email from among the THOUSANDS I receive.

Take a whiff:

Q: I am fascinated by what gives new vehicles that "new car smell." I have heard that automakers have a secret formula that they use in order to entice you into buying a car, but the smell is designed to go away so that you have to buy another one in the future. Any truth to this?

- Dave Aherns (via e-mail)

A: Wow, do I smell a conspiracy brewing here? I love this kind of stuff! But while I agree that cars do smell awfully good when they are new, I hardly think that automakers are holding meetings together to come up with lovely scents designed to excite you - albeit only temporarily.

Certainly, there is nothing as wonderful as sitting behind the wheel of a shiny new car and taking a big whiff of that famous smell. Like many people, I am willing to pay big bucks for a new car every few years, just to experience the wondrous odor. But that sexy scent is probably more arbitrary than anyone would imagine.

Most likely, what we are all smelling is the odor emitted by certain plastics and adhesives inside the car. I did some basic research and stumbled upon an analysis published by New Jersey-based Scientific Instrument Services Inc. pubished article "Identification Of Volatile Organic Compounds In a New Automobile," authors Santford V. Overton and John J. Manura evaluated the new car smell of a 1995 Lincoln Continental.

Their results were interesting - and a little technical:

"The contamination of indoor air (with respect to the Lincoln) is caused by emissions of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) from a variety of sources, including fabrics, upholstery, carpets, adhesives, paints, cleaning materials as well as from exhaust fumes outside the vehicle. Potential health risks exist due to the toxic nature of many of these components. Individually, the contribution from any one product may not be significant, but the cumulative levels of emissions from these products are increasingly becoming a major concern.

"Because many of the volatile emissions and by-products from these products are toxic, additional knowledge of the levels of these organic compounds in the car's interior is required in order to determine human health impacts. Analytical techniques are needed to identify and quantitate VOCs present in these areas to help identify potential health risks. Further studies will also be required to determine the sources of the air contamination. If manufacturing processes are contributing to poor air quality, then the manufacturing processes will need to be improved to limit the emission of VOCs."

That great smell is actually bad for us? I spoke to an engineer source at one of the major automakers about this, and he was skeptical that these VOCs were present in large enough quantities to pose a significant health risk. He also said he was not aware of automakers doing anything underhanded with respect to that new car smell. His take was that the smell is mostly the result of all the freshly installed materials in a new car, which is why the smell eventually fades.

However, for those who have sensitivity to these types or volatile organic compounds, it might be wise to always circulate some fresh air through your car, especially when it's new. Exchanging inside air at a frequent rate is a good way to help reduce your exposure.

As for me, I think I'll keep the windows up and continue to breathe deeply. I can't help it, but I find that new car smell better than the best perfume sold in Paris. Then again, I also love to sniff a new shower curtain. Go figure.

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