As if the struggling economy and still relatively high unemployment rates aren’t enough to dissuade you from buying a new car, the results of a new study may give you yet another reason to consider buying a used car: new car smell is toxic.

Toxic what, you might ask? How can that “new car smell” be toxic? Actually, this is an area that has been pretty thoroughly researched and studied for the past few years by the nonprofit Ecology Center. The new study, released by HealthyStuff.org, found that the least toxic new vehicle is the 2012 Honda Civic, while the worst in this year’s study is the 2011 Mitsubishi Outlander Sport.

What constitutes “toxic” in that new car smell?

While many of us fondly remember our first new car and how delightful the new car smell seemed to us, the fact is that today’s vehicles may emit toxins that are bad for our health, contributing to health problems such as allergies, birth defects, learning problems, toxic livers, and cancer. When vehicles remain closed and in the hot sun for hours on end, this exacerbates the release of harmful chemicals from armrests, dashboards, steering wheels and seats.

The biggest chemical culprit is bromine (associated with brominated flame retardants, or BFRs), followed by chlorine (indicating the presence of polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, and plasticizers), and lead and heavy metals.

Jeff Gearhart, research director at the Ecology Center, said, “Automobiles function as chemical reactors, creating one of the most hazardous environments we spend tie in.”

Things are getting better, however, as automakers are producing cars with fewer toxic-releasing materials. The best vehicles today, according to the study, have eliminated hazardous flame retardants and PVC. The study further found that 17 percent of new vehicles today have interiors completely free of PVC, while 60 percent are produced without BFRs. See the list of PVC-free vehicles here and BFR-free vehicles here.

So, getting back to your perhspa-more-reasonable choie of buying a used car instead of a new one? At least, the new car smell wouldn’t be a problem.

For their part, Honda is certainly pleased with the result of this year’s study. As reported on CBSNews.com, Marcus Frommer, American Honda manager of corporate affairs and communication, said, “Over the past decade, Honda has taken a number of steps to reduce or remove chemicals of concern from our vehicles.”

In this year’s testing, the 2012 Honda Civic achieved the number one spot by being free of BFRs in all interior components, utilizing PVC-free interior fabrics and interior trim, and containing low levels of heavy metals and other metal allergens.

In addition, Honda is again the top-rated automaker for healthy interiors, as it has been since 2007.

Other Honda/Acura vehicles faring least toxic are the 2011 Honda CR-Z, and the 2012 Acura RDX and ZDX. Also low-scoring, in terms of toxicity, are the 2008, 2009, and 2011 Honda Accord, 2011 Honda Insight, and 2009 Acura RDX.

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