An hour’s drive from Dusseldorf, and we’re feeling queasy in the back of a minibus. The heat. The traffic. The speed of the autobahn. It’s all too much. But one thing we know isn’t to blame for our somersaulting stomach: The materials our vehicle is made from.
We’re on our way to meet the scientists who take health and safety to the extreme: the boffins at TÜV Rheinland. They’re the European equivalent of the BSi Kitemark, providing a seal of quality and safety to goods across the continent.
While their labs are frequently host to such varied guests as toothpaste, children’s toys or building materials, today they’re testing cars. Not crash testing them, as you might expect, but analysing the materials that make up their bodywork, interior and even the buttons and switches on the dashboard for allergens and cancer-causing carcinogens.
This is TÜV Rheinland’s TOXPROOF programme, and while it’s not required by law, passing it with a seal of approval is extremely tricky.
Ford began testing its cars for allergy-inducing materials in 2004 and to date is the only manufacturer to meet TÜV Rheinland’s stringent requirements.
“We feel it may become an international standard,” says Dr Karl Sander, the man in charge of the TOXPROOF programme. “At the moment Ford uses this testing for all its cars in Europe, but will continue towards testing all of its cars in the United States.
“We also test other manufacturers’ cars,” he adds “but at the moment only Ford has passed. Maybe, within a year, that will change.”
The reason for the testing becomes apparent when we chat with Professor Peter Elsner from the University of Jena in Germany. He tells us that allergies of all types are increasing in frequency, from hay fever to dermatitis, with patients reacting to materials such as nickel in belt buckles and trouser buttons. What’s more, he explains, few environments place a person in such close proximity to man made materials, while also introducing a blast of air from the outside. Potentially, that air contains allergens that could cause a driver to sneeze or cough, increasing the risk of an accident behind the wheel.
The materials inside a car, we’re told, can trigger all sorts of reactions from passengers. TÜV’s testing makes sure airborne irritants can’t enter the air conditioning unit, and makes sure materials in the seats won’t cause a passenger to break out in hives. But that’s just the start.
Klaus Bandel is one of TÜV Rheinland’s scientists, working in its chemical analysis lab, he tells us that to fully meet the standards body’s TOXPROOF requirements, parts of its trim and bodywork must be subjected to heat testing, with the vapours that result analysed for cancer-causing chemicals.
It’s a serious test, since the inside of a car can reach high temperatures when parked in direct sunlight, the last thing its makers or drivers want is for dangerous fumes to emerge.
Pointing to a dismantled gear stick on his laboratory bench, Bandel explains: “Our experts see that this is black, so there’s the possibility that it may contain a colour agent. Some colour agents contain PAHs.”
For those of us without a chemistry degree, Bandel is referring to Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons. They’re linked to cancer, and therefore a distinct no-no for materials that will be exposed to high temperatures, causing them to evaporate into the car’s interior.
“We try to identify the PAH,” Bandel continues, taking us through a crash course in gas chromotography. “There are two tests. For high boiling substances, we use solvents. For low boiling substances we heat this gear knob at 80 degrees, and when the substances
enter their gas phase, we try to identify them using this machine.”
Bandel points to a gas chromatograph behind us, which will analyse captured gases to determine their chemical composition. “We can identify more than a thousand different substances,” he says.
And Bandel is not alone in his testing. TÜV Rheinland employs over 14,000 employees globally. Not all of them work on its TOXPROOF programme, but they all use the same techniques to make sure products are safe and healthy to use.
Stefan Riewer, an application specialist from the materials engineering division at Ford of Europe explains the need for tougher testing of car interiors with a simple statement, comparing TÜV guidelines to those of governments, he said: “The TÜV certificate allows five micrograms [of airborne benzene] per cubic meter, whereas the Chinese draft certificate allows for 110. This is significant because very microgram increases the probability of cancer.”
Of course, we don’t mean to scaremonger, but we’re glad on our journey back to the UK that we’re sat in the back of a Ford minibus, queasy or not.