James Hannigan (66) had to drive with a towel around his face because of the presence in his taxi of toluene, which can be fatal if inhaled at high levels

A DUBLIN taxi driver is battling to establish how a potentially lethal chemical contaminated his brand-new car.

Nine months after buying his Skoda Octavia, James Hannigan (66) discovered that, shortly after having repairs carried out last September, an obnoxious smell made it impossible to drive.

People complained of the odour from his clothes and told him he looked ill; at one stage he even had to wrap a towel around his head while driving.

In a report last May, nine months after the smell first became noticeable, analysis revealed the presence of a potentially lethal chemical.

It was so bad that Hannigan even tried to bring it to a National Car Testing (NCT) centre last year to try and identify the problem, even though it was not due a certificate.

"I called down with a towel wrapped around my face to protect myself," he said. "On the way home I got stopped by the traffic corps. He stuck his head in and said, 'what the hell have you got in here, dead bodies?'"

The NCT inspectors aborted the test midway through due to "vehicle condition".

Some six tests and €1,700 in expenses later, Hannigan says he is still completely in the dark as to how the chemical got into the car, which has since been handed back to the finance company.

But tests carried out by City Analysts Ltd in Kildare last May finally shed light on just how dangerous the situation might have been. It confirmed traces of the compound toluene, or phenyl methane, a common solvent used to dissolve paints, glues and disinfectants and which can be inhaled for its "intoxicating effects".

"Low to moderate levels can cause tiredness, confusion, weakness, drunken-type actions, memory loss, nausea, loss of appetite and hearing and colour vision loss," the report stated. "Inhaling high levels of toluene can also cause unconsciousness and even death. Toluene may negatively affect kidney function."

Hannigan says at times he found himself dry-retching after spending a long time in the vehicle. Earlier this month he commissioned more tests to establish the levels of the solvent present.

After an accident in May 2008, he gave the car to a garage associated with his insurance company three times. It was after the second occasion that he noticed the odour, and although he returned it to the garage, its source could not be found.

Last December he had the car examined by an auto engineer who noted: "The odour from the interior was totally unacceptable and in fact it was so bad that it was practically impossible to even sit in the vehicle."

The garage then took the car back and stripped out the interior, where a water leak was noticed.

Believing this to be the cause of the smell, the car dealership that originally sold the vehicle completely refitted the interior, seemingly getting rid of the odour.

However, some days later Hannigan said it returned and, anxious to prove his concerns, he sought out a professional environmental monitoring service.

The garage which carried out the bodywork on the car declined to comment. The dealership said it had never encountered any such problem before but had endeavored to help resolve the matter.

A spokesman for Skoda said: "I am not aware of this [kind of problem] now or in the last 20-odd years of the motor trade. Nobody in manufacturing is going to use chemicals that are in any way injurious to the occupant."

Meanwhile Hannigan awaits the results of his latest tests.