Iain Murray: The noxious car, beloved by health fanatics everywhere

Cars are bad for us, spewing pollutants into the air and exposing us daily to harmful chemicals and toxins. So why do lobbyists overlook them?

Asked to name a common cause of foetal abnormalities, asthma, rashes, eczema, eye irritation, and sundry allergies, the health fanatic would unhesitatingly reply, “smoking”.

That he or she would give the same answer if asked to name the cause of elephantiasis, beriberi, fallen arches, and gum boils is beside the point: there is, after all, no reasoning with the single-issue fanatic. Those with an open mind, however, may be surprised to learn that all the ailments listed in the opening paragraph have been attributed to the motor car.

More surprisingly still, the occupants of the family runabout expose themselves to these hazards before they have travelled an inch. Research – where would the scaremongers be without it? – shows that the materials used in car components such as dashboards, steering wheels and seats contain chemicals that trigger all manner of allergic reactions.

Scientists say there are two ways in which “in-car contaminants” are absorbed into the body: through skin contact with dangerous metals used in some components (touching a door handle containing nickel could spark off an allergy), and the inhalation of emissions, including formaldehyde and hydrocarbons in plastic, adhesives, and dyes.

In all, some 60,000 allergens are thought to lurk in each car. And – oh, the joy of being a wowser! – the problem is worse in recycled plastics, hitherto applauded for their environmental credentials, and in cars fitted with air-conditioning systems which cause a harmful accumulation of gases.

Moreover – this gets better – should the weather be warm and sunny the risks are made greater, owing to heat accelerating the emission of toxic gases. Best of all, if drivers follow the advice of the experts and run the ventilation system regularly, they will be at peril from the noxious fumes belching out from the exhausts of surrounding cars.

The plain and unavoidable conclusion is that motoring is a serious health hazard. As if we didn’t know. At the last count the car had accounted for the deaths of some 50 million people worldwide. Road traffic accidents are more sudden, gruesome, and likely to cause premature death than are all the fond causes of the fanatics such as smoking, drinking, and eating cream buns.

So why the silence? Where is the equivalent of the anti-smoking pressure group Action on Smoking and Health (ASH) (perhaps CRASH – the Campaign to Rubbish Automobiles and Salvage Health)? Why do we tolerate the carnage on our roads? How can we expose our “kids” to such dangers? Why no peep from the BMA? Why does the Health Education Authority sleep on its watch?

How is the motorist allowed to remain unpersecuted while the foxhunter is hounded and the smoker ostracised? What of the evils of breathing in someone else’s dashboard toxins, or passive motoring? Why are motorists not harassed, bullied, shamed, banned from public places and forced to indulge their foul habit in huddled groups? (Well, all right, they are, but not as a matter of public policy. Quite the reverse, road congestion is regretted by those in power, whereas it should of course be seen as a punishment for indulging in a noisome vice.) Why are cars not sold with a health warning painted on the bonnet? How is it possible that they can be advertised? After all, motoring is a voluntary activity.

The answer is obvious. Cars may pollute, kill, maim, and poison, and driving may provoke motorists into battering each other about the head, but we all have cars.

The doctor has a car (and puts a sticker on it so that he may park where we may not), the anti-smoking fanatic has a car; the politically correct prig has a car; the food freak has a car; the politician has a car (and a chauffeur, too); all God’s chillun got cars. Even members of the Green Party have been seen driving.

It tells us much about the peculiar nature of fanaticism, that it can be so selective and apply such double standards.

It will not do to say the car brings benefits such as freedom and mobility. Those who claimed they found solace in tobacco and lived in a free country were mocked.

Nor will it do to argue that cars should be made safer. The tobacco industry tried to make its products safer and was scorned. Kindly souls who, putting personal liberty ahead of intolerance, installed smoke extractors in offices and other buildings were scoffed at and derided. Nothing less than a smoke-free Britain brought about by bullying and enforced by mealy-mouthed obloquy would do.

Meanwhile we get into our cars and break out in spots. Our kiddies wheeze and turn puce. Our grannies lay aged fingers on nickel-polluted door handles and are stricken. All of us inhale deadly dashboard vapours. Our cities, towns and villages are blighted by machines that clutter the streets and poison the air we breathe.

The fact is that fanaticism is no less modish than other hobbies. Current fashion dictates that some minorities, such as smokers, are fair game, while others, such as lesbians, are treasured. Majorities, however, are off-limits.


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