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Global carmakers testing plastics for VOC emissions

By: Rhoda Miel

October 9, 2013

TROY, MICH. — With South Korea, China and Japan developing regulations that would oversee auto interior air quality, and a proposal for global vehicle air quality rates, automakers are looking to develop standard testing systems.

Right now, individual carmakers in most markets have their own individual testing systems to look for volatile organic compounds released through outgassing of new parts and materials during a car’s early lifecycle, said Mark Polster, an emissions specialist with Ford Motor Co., during the Society of Plastics Engineers Automotive Thermoplastic Polyolefin conference in Troy Oct. 7-9.

The VOCs are part of what is commonly referred to as the “new car smell” and have raised environmental concerns about what harm they may pose to the buyers and passengers of new vehicles. The levels decrease significantly after the car’s first few months in use.

China is considering regulating the emissions by 2016, while South Korea’s standards are set to go into effect by July. South Korea has also recommended global regulations through the United Nations on vehicle interior air quality, although that process is in its early stages.

At this point, Polster said, North American-made cars would easily pass requirements, but without a standard way of testing vehicles or standard levels required for air quality, testing could add complexity and cost to new car development.

Typically, testers air out a new car, then close all windows and vents for a period of time. After that time, they sample the air quality — but there are huge variations in how those studies are conducted, he said.

For example, South Korea tests vehicles after two hours, China tests after 16 hours. There are big changes in results on the same vehicle if it is tested immediately after it comes off the assembly line or if it has been on a dealer’s lot for two months or if the car has been in the sun or under cover, Polster said.

Dearborn, Mich.-based Ford can get different responses at its test facilities based on when and how a car is tested.

“We want regulators to know that there’s a lot of difference and a lot of variability depending on how you test,” he said.

The whole system of interior air quality testing is still so new that the industry cannot yet point to exactly what parts are responsible for which emissions, Polster said. Formaldahyde emissions could be leaching from plastics during oxidization, specific materials or even adhesives and sealants used during production.