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When Your Car Has that New-Car Smell, It's Luxurious. When Your House Does, It Can Kill You.

Mario Tama/Getty Images News

In the course of his research on the New Orleans trailer park culture that developed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Oxford anthropologist Nick Shapiro stumbled on something unexpected. At 250 square feet, the FEMA-issued mobile homes were scarcely fit to live in, but there was one thing about them that, for their occupants, represented the height of luxury: a scent evocative of the interior of a new car. This smell was also making them sick.

“Trailer residents would positively note the new smell of their trailer between bouts of coughing,” said Shapiro. “These trailers are potential harbingers of larger domestic formaldehyde issues that affect not just manufactured housing but many new homes in general—particularly tightly sealed ‘green’ homes.” And the toxic trailers have traveled beyond New Orleans: Since 2010, over 120,000 FEMA trailers originally intended as temporary post-Katrina housing have been bought and sold throughout the U.S.

Alice Robb: What is the “new car smell”?

Nick Shapiro: The chemical bouquet of the “new car smell” has become a part of the global sensorial palette, but its chemistry is contentious; what people identify as the “new car smell” is made up of a broad range of chemicals. If you ask the auto industry, they say it’s plasticizers, but if you run a mass spectrometry inside a new car, they only make up a small proportion compared to volatile organic chemicals. Formaldehyde is a major component, espcially in homes, where it's used as a setting agent in engineered woods like plywood and particle board.

AR: Is it dangerous?

NS: As people started moving into their rapidly built emergency housing units, they began developing a broad array of symptoms—eye, nose irritations, cancer, asthma attacks, dermatological issues. And mobile homes in general use a higher concentration of engineered woods, have a high ratio of walls to interior space and aren’t well ventilated.

It’s probably not dangerous in a car. You don’t spend that much time in your car compared to your home, and it’s better ventilated. What is potentially dangerous is when formaldehyde, a known carcinogen, emanates from nearly every surface in a manufactured home and inhabitants spend day-in and day-out steeping in those contaminated atmospheres—enjoying the smell but becoming increasingly anxious about their deteriorating health.

Akasha Rabut

AR: When did the “new car smell” emerge into what you call the “American sensorium”?

NS: It came out of the car fervor that gripped America in the post-World War II period. Auto industry advertisements were the first to make mention of the new car smell, which they associated with status, style, and freshness. In 1946, a motor oil ad in LIFE magazine that depicts two men in suits admiring a pristine car reads, “There’s something about the very smell of a new car that gives you a big thrill.” The ad emphasizes the “clean odor of new upholstery” and teeters on the precipice of the ‘new car smell’ without naming it. By 1948, the scent-concept had solidified, as evinced in an ad in US News and World Report:

You open a door and sniff that ‘new-car smell’ of fresh lacquer and newly-loomed upholstery. From beneath the gleaming hood a faint whispering speaks eloquently of the torrents of power eagerly waiting to take you anywhere on the map.

By the mid-1950s, the new car smell had sprung from adverts into the pages of fiction. The main character of a 1955 suspense novel, Cry Hard, Cry Fast, mentions not just the smell itself but its usefulness as a means of synthesizing newness:

You know, Gina, in the used car lots when they get a good clean car in, a recent model, they sometimes brush the upholstery with embalming fluid. That gives it a new car smell.

And it still holds an appeal today. Some quotes from my own fieldwork:

"It’s like the new car smell times ten."—a man who purchased a FEMA trailer in Michigan

"Oh, I mentioned the new smell right away—didn’t I, mom?"— a woman who bought a FEMA trailer in Illinois

"It looked clean and had that new smell. I was pretty happily surprised."— a FEMA trailer occupant in Tennessee 

Akasha Rabut

AR: Why do people like this toxic odor?

NS: Actually experiencing the new car small is a rare event—most people will only be exposed to it a few times in their life—but it’s saturated in cultural meaning. It’s a product in its own right, a signifier of newness for a broad range of products, from cars to carpets to plywood to cosmetics to mobile homes.

Some contemporary ads label the aroma, ‘the smell of success.’ The fragrance is steeped with so much cultural capital that it has become a perfume. Mustang has a brand of cologne available at Walmart. In the spring of 2012, Ford Spain released its own bottled fragrance dubbed “Olor a Nuevo” (“Smells New”), which was sold individually and infused into their pre-owned vehicles.

For those who can’t afford new cars, it’s an aspirational smell, but those who can define themselves in the relationship to the smell by disliking it. There is no natural response to these smells; the ways we cultivate our response indicates our class and class aspirations. Whenever I give talks about this, I bring a “new car smell” spray for people to pass around. In this kind of audience, most people draw pleasure not from the smell itself but from displaying disgust at the smell. It’s a different appreciation of newness. These are the people who buy jeans with pre-made holes in them, who find vintage items more "authentic" than newer products.

Akasha Rabut