Bugs in the beetle

Everybody loves driving around in their car. But few know how imperative it is to keep it clean. Do you?

Cleaning carYou may be the proud owner of a luxury automobile that makes a lifestyle statement wherever you cruise, or a modest family vehicle that provides both comfort and economy. While you may have paid close attention to the mileage, ensuring that it isn't a gas guzzler that could add more pollutants to the environment, when was the last time you looked under the carpet, between the upholstery or under the dashboard? And when was the last time you checked to see if deadly allergens from dust mites and poisonous fumes from cigarette smoke were still swirling around inside?

It may come as a surprise to many, but automobile hygiene is one of the most ignored aspects of health care. "Most car owners are concerned with the outside of their vehicles", says Arizona-based general practitioner, Sanjay Manchada, MD. "They fret over every scratch, wash the body of the car regularly; ensuring that even the slightest scrape is re-painted. But sadly, the real issues of hygiene within the vehicle are grossly ignored. This can lead to several health problems, from respiratory disorders due to dust mites, [the most common allergen], asthma, colds, persistent coughs, even triggering sinus headaches." As we spend more time within the constraints of this enclosed environment, car hygiene now takes precedence like never before.

Poor car hygiene hurts

According to a study called Toxic at Any Speed: Chemicals in Cars and the Need for Safe Alternatives, conducted in 2006, by researchers of the Ecology Centre in California, USA, the concentration of a major chemical pollutant PBDE [Polybrominated diphenyl ethers] found in dust and on the windscreen of the interiors of a car are five times higher than in the homes and offices of most people. And this can severely impact health, especially since traffic snarls and long commutes increase the time you spend in your car.

PBDE is a toxic environmental pollutant, mostly found in consumer goods such as electrical equipment, construction materials, plastic coatings, textiles and polyurethane foam [furniture padding]. Used to soften the seats of the cars and often contributing to the "new car smell," it is also used in vehicle interiors to make seat cushions, arm rests, wire insulation and floor covering. The study revealed that these chemicals were released when the cars got over-heated, especially when the vehicle is parked in the blazing sun.

When combined with dust mites, they can be inhaled, leading to health risks. "We can no longer rely just on seatbelts and airbags to keep us safe in cars," said Jeff Gearhart, the Ecology Centre's Clean Car Campaign Director who co-authored the report. Most people think about cars causing outdoor air pollution, such as smog. Now we know that breathing the air and dust inside the car may be even more dangerous."

Children exposed to PBDEs are prone to subtle but significant developmental problems, which affect brain growth. For adults, it could be carcinogenic or create problems associated with the liver.

The study found that car owners could minimise these health hazards by keeping their vehicle interiors clean and dust-free, using solar reflectors in order to prevent the trapping of UV rays, ventilating car interiors and parking in the shade whenever possible.

Why take the trouble

Besides harmful chemical contaminants, a car filled with dust mites attracts spiders and other small pests that could be harmful to young children. Floating dust mite can also enter the air passages and nostrils, resulting in sneezing and allergic cough. While driving, this can interrupt your rhythm, or worse, the dust mite could irritate the delicate lining of your eyes. This also poses an additional hazard if you wear contact lenses, as it can cloud your vision at crucial moments.

A busy family may bring plenty of unrelated material into the car - such as pens, pencils, key chains, loose change, even small toys. As these can keep slipping between the seats, they pose a choking hazard to babies and young children, who may be difficult to supervise when you are driving. If you have young children in the house, a clutter-free car is a priority.

Inside job

You'll need to purchase a hand-held vacuum, one that is compact and can be stashed away in the trunk of the vehicle for easy access.

First, remove all the floor mats and have them beaten and vacuumed. If any mat is damp due to rains or sweat from dirty socks and gym clothing, then ensure that the mat is placed under direct sunlight for at least an hour or more to kill germs. Once the mats have been removed, the interiors of the car should be thoroughly vacuumed, with special attention to the corners [especially in the ridges of the doors]. Rubber mats retain germs easily and these should be cleaned in soapy water with a plastic hand-held brush. Insert your hand between the upholstery and ensure that there are no stray objects here before you vacuum the seats. Ensure that the plastic covers are completely removed from the upholstery before running the vacuum. Don't forget to wipe the dashboard [you may be surprised by the number of coffee stains this area sustains], especially if you're in the habit of having your morning cuppa as you commute.

Keep only essentials in the storage area underneath the dashboard. Your sunglasses, driver's licence and a fresh towel would do. Lastly, ensure that the windshield is sparkling clean as is the trunk and the storage area behind your head in the back seat. Avoid placing small objects in this sloping storage area as they can fall down during jerks and possibly injure back seat passengers.

To remove any embedded contaminants such as tar spots, bug or bird droppings, tree sap, from the body of the car, you can use dissolved baking soda, which is both gentle and effective in prising out dirt. Mineral spirits and denatured alcohol act as mild solvents as well. You can also purchase sprays of cleaning solution specifically designed for this purpose. Ensure that you choose the milder varieties that will not affect the paint.

Today, a clean car is as important as a clean home to lead a healthy life! Ensure that this aspect of hygiene doesn't pass you by.

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Kamala Thiagarajan
Kamala Thiagarajan is a Madurai-based journalist. Her writing interests encompass a host of genres including travel, health, entertainment and lifestyle. She is a full-time freelance journalist who works from her home in Madurai, South India. With ten years of experience in journalism, she has over four hundred articles in print in leading magazines across the globe. Her writing spans a variety of travel, health, entertainment and lifestyle features read by a diverse audience in over seven count

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