Breathe Easy!

Garrett McKinnon - 5/20/2019

Think about the last time you were in heavy traffic. Remember that car you got stuck behind, the ’86 Oldsmobile spewing clouds of noxious white smoke? Remember the teary eyes and hacking cough that afflicted you while your car filled up with smoke?

Or how about your last drive in the country. Remember when you drove past that field of silvery-green plants, only to realize they were ragweed? Remember the sneezing, the runny nose?

Psst. Let me share a little secret with you: You don't have to suffer these things anymore.

If your car was built sometime in the past decade, the chances are good that it was equipped with a cabin air filter. What’s a cabin air filter? Simply put, it's a filter that cleans the air outside your car before it comes inside. These filters are typically made of an electrostatically charged fiber mat that snatches airborne particles out of the air and secures them to the filter paper—think of them as a surgical mask for your car.

Cabin air filters are extremely efficient at what they do, with many types able to remove the majority of airborne particles down to three microns in diameter. In case you slept through science class (I did), a dot made with a standard pencil is about 200 microns in diameter, so a particle only three microns in diameter is pretty small to say the least. Particles trapped by cabin air filters include pollen, spores, bacteria, exhaust, road dust, soot, industrial dust and smoke or smog, among others. This means the air that enters your car is much cleaner than the air outside, allowing you to breathe easier.

Studies have shown that the air inside vehicles not equipped with cabin air filters can have contaminants that are two to six times more concentrated than in the air outside. That’s because your car’s climate control system essentially "vacuums” contaminants from outside, where they are trapped inside your car while the windows are closed. Think about that the next time you’re stuck in traffic.

European luxury carmakers were the first to install cabin air filters, but as of 2006 as many as 85 percent of all new cars and light trucks sold in the United States were equipped with these filters. (Want to know a dirty little secret? Even if you didn’t check the "pollen filter” or similarly worded box on the option sheet when you ordered your new car, it’s likely that you can still install a cabin air filter in it—just for much less money than the factory would have charged you. Even cars that don’t come equipped with a cabin air filter often are built with the capability of having one quickly and inexpensively installed.)

Most auto manufacturers recommend that cabin air filters be replaced about every 15,000 miles, or annually at the least. The service is fairly inexpensive, about $35 depending on your vehicle type, and it generally takes less than 15 minutes. It’s a small price to pay for cleaner, healthier air.

Plus, if you’re willing to spend a little extra money, there’s a bonus. Some premium cabin air filters are made with a layer of activated charcoal that can actually filter out noxious gases and odors, capturing particles as small as 1/100th of a micron, or 1/5000th the width of a human hair. This means that not only will you not be breathing Mr. Oldsmobile’s exhaust, you won’t smell it either.

So ask your automotive service provider if your car has a cabin air filter. Having a new one installed could be your ticket to a breath of cleaner, and healthier, fresh air.