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The Hybrid Hype

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With my car lease due to expire, I had been searching for a new car for the last five to six months. I test drove a vehicle from almost every automaker to get a feel for what I liked. I was looking at a few hybrid cars in efforts to be more eco-friendly, but since I have a clothing line, I need the space that an SUV offers for loading boxes and large bolts of fabric.

I felt that my search ended when I drove the Volkswagen Tiguan. It had everything I needed; safety, strength, space and style. But...it was not a hybrid. Worse yet, it required a medium grade fuel, so I held off on pursuing this as my final purchase. A friend of mine had just leased a 2010 Prius, and offered me to test drive his new car. I liked it. It was quiet, smooth and surprisingly spacious. I put this on my list of contenders.

Then, hours before Earth Day (ironically), the BP oil rigger explosion and subsequent spill ravaged the Gulf of Mexico. I was so disheartened watching the oil gushing into our ocean and contaminating the marine life in that region. I was then even more discouraged watching massive amounts of chemical dispersants being poured on top of this ugly spill. As if we didn't have enough of a somewhat natural mess to clean up? We were now convoluting the disaster with harmful chemicals? UGH! With zero ability to better this frustrating situation, I felt the best thing to do was to purchase a vehicle that would be kinder to our environment. Or so I thought...

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I went to a Toyota dealership. There, I was offered an amazing deal on a fully loaded Level IV Prius with solar panels. It had beige leather and blizzard pearl exterior color. It was gorgeous. This model had navigation, star system, seat heaters and even floor panel lights. I was thrilled and excited to wean off of gasoline dependence. I leased the Level IV 2010 Prius. Yet, after driving it home that evening, I felt nauseous and I had a massive headache. I chalked this up to that "new car smell", and assumed that a chemical used in the pre-purchase detail was the source of my abnormal irritation.

Yet, it continued to the level that every time I drove the car I would get searing headaches. I literally could not drive it for more than twenty minutes without having to pull over and get out of the car. Since I am not prone to headaches I knew that something was up. I washed down the interior with a non-toxic cleaner and I kept the windows and sunroof open as often as possible. Nothing was helping, and it seemed to be getting worse. My head pulsed and my eyes seemed to cross while I was driving. Sometimes I felt pressure in my chest and found it difficult to breathe.

A man sitting next to me at an airport overheard me talking about this to my mother on the phone. After I hung up he told me that what I was experiencing was not uncommon. He told me that the electro-magnetic frequency emitted from a hybrid battery massive enough to move a vehicle was so strong that many people experience side effects. I had never heard of this, but it made sense. I looked into it, and he was right! I found a 2008 New York Times article suggesting these potential health problems, and I found many blog sites of people sensitive to hybrid cars. A friend of mine owns an EMF meter used for reading the amount of electro-magnetic frequency being emitted in an area. It measures in mG (milligauss.) She was kind enough to let me borrow her meter.

Just to be certain that there wasn't another problem, I brought my Prius into the nearest Toyota service center. I asked them to check for any leaks that could be the source of my reactions. I was driving a Dodge Caliber rental car while my Prius was in service. I tested the Caliber rental with the EMF reader while the car was on. It registered at 0.2mG. The next day, when I picked up my Prius, the service agent came with me to test the EMF of the car. I turned on the car and the EMF reader. Without driving, the car read 0.9mG. We continued to take a different kind of test drive around the block. While driving the car without the radio or air conditioning on, it read 2.8mG. When we put all the features on (navigation, air conditioning and radio), it read 4.6mG! This was the proof that I needed that it was the EMF's that were causing my headaches and reactions.

Some studies have shown an association between EMF exposure and an increased risk of childhood leukemia at average exposures above 2 mG, but determining actual health risks from EMF exposure is complex. A growing body of articles and studies suggests that there may be health risks depending on many variables, including length of exposure in the field, actual field strength during the exposure period, a person's age, body mass, general health and perhaps genetic predisposition or vulnerability to cancer. While debate continues, it remains very possible that there are some hazards from EMF. I am a 120 lb vegan yoga instructor sitting in a compact, fully loaded vehicle radiating at levels over 4mG.

I started to wonder about my clients who drive hybrids. Every one of them has an inflammatory issue that baffles me beyond their healthy diets and clean lifestyle choices. I had chalked these issues up to age and genetics, but now I began to wonder if it wasn't related to their driving choices.

I went to a local Toyota dealership where a car salesman and I conducted a little experiment. We test drove several Prius' on the car lot. The Level II (no navigation or sunroof) read in the 2mG's, the level III (with navigation) read in the 3mG's and the higher levels (like mine) read in the 4mG's. I strongly believe that if I had purchased the base model that I would not have felt as much radiation as I did.

Ironically, the more research that I did about hybrid-electric car batteries, the more I realized they were the farthest thing from green. Apparently, the nickel on the Toyota Prius battery is mined in Sudbury, Ontario, shipped to a refinery in Wales, sent to China to be made into nickel foam, then it is shipped to Japan and made into a hybrid battery, now ready for the 2010 Prius. Once the car is assembled, it is shipped to the United States. The point here is that the Toyota battery consumes a lot of fossil fuel during its development; not to mention these batteries eventually accumulating in landfills.

Thankfully, the dealer whom I leased my car from (Hooman Toyota in Long Beach) was amazing. He was kind and sincere. He expressed that his first priority was to keep his customers safe and happy. I have never been so impressed with any business owner in my life. Brilliant at finding a creative solution, he extended another great offer to get me into a non-hybrid Toyota Highlander without the burden of any negative equity from the Prius return. The quality of the Highlander speaks for itself, and I was very impressed with my test drive (and the EMF reading.)

Hybrid and electric vehicles are fuel alternatives, but they are not as green as they seem, especially if they are adding health risks to the drivers. I eagerly await a more viable fuel-cell car that can use sustainably sourced fuels, such as hydrogen. Until then, please be wise...and trust what you feel.