Is your car’s air killing you slowly?

"It's that new car smell Jim! He was seen huffing the dashboard for hours." "Doesn't he know about in-car air pollution, the dummy?!"

In-car air pollution is a real thing and is very bad for you – here’s what you can do to minimise its impact

Photos: 3M, Derryn Wong, Robert Hicks


You car could be killing you slowly – and we’re not talking about the monthly downpayments, road tax or Certificates of Entitlement (COE) either.

Even when it’s not hazy, Singapore’s air isn’t particularly clean. In fact, as we reported last year, our air quality exceeds the World Health Organisation’s standards for air pollution by as much as two to three times.

But drivers don’t need to worry about this, they just hop into the car, turn on the AC and recirculate the air…or do they?

A briefing held by applied materials company 3M highlighted various things inside a car that can negatively affect human health, with the key speaker being Dr Philip Eng (above), Senior Consultant Respiratory & ICU Physician, Mount Elizabeth Medical Centre and  Professor of Medicine at NUS.

“Air pollution is a relatively under-investigated science,” Professor Eng said, “but we now know much more about it than say, a decade ago. And increasingly science shows that air quality is a very significant factor in human health.”

Indoor air pollution has many causes, including pet dander, mould, chemicals, and even third-hand smoke – residual chemicals ‘stained’ into furniture and rooms, even if smoking has already stopped.

Given that car cabins are basically tiny rooms that may not receive adequate ventilation, it’s obvious that in-car air pollution could also be a contributor to bad health.

Cars also receive pollution from the outside, in addition to their own emissions from combustion engines, plus the plastics and other materials may also emit other pollutants due to preservatives used in the production process.

“Here in Singapore, our cars are often parked in the hot sun, which may also cause additional chemical reactions. We simply don’t know exactly what happens here,” said Dr Eng.

Compounds found inside cars include xylenes, toulene, styrene and more. Formaldehyde is also another chemical compound, often used as a preservative, and is carcinogenic.

He also cites new research (“Air Quality Inside Passenger Cars”, Faber & Brodzik February 2017) that reveals a wide range of pollutants existing inside even brand new cars:

“As a result, particularly in case of newly produced vehicles, large amounts and numbers of volatile species, especially volatile organic compounds (VOCs), may be emitted and have influence vehicle interior air quality (VIAQ). Despite the fact that many of these compounds may not be harmful for human health, some of them may be toxic, and this is the reason for increasing concern of vehicle manufacturers and users recently.”

All this sounds very scary indeed, but there are a few things you can do to mitigate the effects of in-car pollution.

1. Use the air conditioner

Given that Singapore’s air quality isn’t that good and there’s been a vast increase in the number of heavy commercial vehicles over the past decade, if you’re in heavy traffic it’s best to wind up the windows and turn on the AC.

“Using the car’s air conditioner can reduce the pollutant level by 20 to 34 percent,” says Dr Eng. Most cars have built in filtration systems with activated carbon filters, and some even have more advanced plasma or ion-based systems as well.

2. Get a HEPA air purifier

The best air purifiers are those with HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filters. A cursory search on local online retailers throws up a few choices, but at the talk, 3M also unveiled its new in-car air purifier the 3M Vehicle Air Purifier Plus.

The company claims the device removes ‘up to 99 percent of dust, pet dander, PM 2.5 particles, 93 percent of harmful gases, and bad odors’. The air filter is made up of polymer fibres which both attract and trap particles, plus an activated carbon layer to remove harmful chemicals.

The unit has an air quality sensor that automatically adjusts the rate of filtration. HEPA filters are generally the most efficient purifiers, but the filters need to be replaced for maximum efficiency. The 3M Purifier has a filter replacement indicator for this purpose.

The 3M Vehicle Air Purifier Plus (PN38816) is available online on Lazada and Qoo10 via Aveon Living (an authorised 3M distributor), and from Autobacs stores in Singapore. It retails for $299 (including GST).

Replacement filter cartridges for the 3M™ Vehicle Air Purifier Plus (PN38716) are also available via the same channels and retail for $30 (including GST).

  1. Or a plasma/ion air purifier

A different kind of air purifier is the plasma/ionic type which emit negative ions that attach to the bad stuff.

While they’re less efficient that HEPA-type filters, they deal well with odours and don’t need replacement cartridges – one example is a Singaporean-designed unit, the Octygen Inrush, which we tested a few years back. Octygen also sells normal HEPA type purifiers for indoor use as well.


about the author

Derryn Wong
CarBuyer's chief editor has a keen interest in all things mechanical, technological, animal and mineral. He's particularly fascinated by eco-cars and cars which make no logical sense. An avid motorcyclist and photographer, he also enjoys cats.