Very moldy car interior, beyond salvage © Daniel Friedman Moldy Car Case Study: Severely mold-contaminated automobile; vehicle mold contamination cause, photographs, laboratory analysis

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Car mold contamination: this article describes an automobile that was so mold contaminated that it was beyond economical salvage. To study the types of mold that might be expected to be found on different surfaces and materials used in automobiles and similar vehicles, we inspected the vehicle and collected 30 test samples for processing in our forensic lab. We report here on what lab analysis found in this vehicle.

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Car Mold: Photographs and Lab Tests of a Very Moldy Car Identify Many Mold Genera/Species

Memnoniella echinata Car mold severe, beyond cleaning (C) Daniel Friedman

Daniel Friedman, Steve Lewis[1]

We inspected, photographed, and collected test samples from a severely mold-contaminated 1991 Acura that had been stored for approximately six months in a shady spot in New York's Hudson Valley. On discovery (March 2012) the car was partially covered with a plastic tarp but was basically exposed to the elements.

Mold of various colors and textures was thick on most, but interestingly not all of the vehicle's interior surfaces and contents.

The interior driver's seat, floor carpets, and trunk interior were wet as were contents of door pockets. Lewis had previously observed droplets of water from leakage or condensation soaking the vehicle headliner as well.

Examining these car-mold samples in our forensic lab, we found that the car had become a veritable jungle of mold multiple mold genera growing on different materials for which each genera appears to have a particular affinity.

Automobile interiors make use of vinyls and plastics of various formulations, rubber, synthetic fabrics, and other materials, forming a nice test lab for examining the affinity of different mold genera/species for different automotive materials. Each mold genera/species confirms by its dominant presence an affinity for certain of these automotive materials.

Some of these molds, found in this vehicle in extensive colonies, are particularly irritating or even harmful to humans, including Acremonium sp., Aspergillus niger, Memnoniella echinata and Penicillium sp.

Car mold catastrophe (C) Daniel Friedman Car mold catastrophe (C) Daniel Friedman

Mold growth of various colors and textures was found on just about every surface inside the vehicle. But our initial visual inspection (before any lab analysis) suggested by color and texture and general appearance, that several different mold genera/species seemed to be occupying different surfaces and materials in the vehicle. Some interior surfaces (listed below) had comparatively little or no visible mold growth.

Steering wheel mold (C) D Friedman Drivers headrest mold Trichoderma viride (C) Daniel Friedman

Our lab photo (above left) illustrates the mold genera we found on the steering wheel outer rim (sample #5); at the steering wheel center we found the same fungi but with the addition of Acremonium sp. while the driver's headrest (sample #8) was covered with Trichoderma viride (above right).

Before its storage the vehicle had been owned by members of a single family and had been in constant use between 1991 and 2011 - a period of twenty years of reliable service. Prior to storage there were no mold, odor or related complaints about the vehicle.

Mold Growth on Vinyl, Plastic, & Rubber Surfaces in the Automobile

Car mold catastrophe (C) Daniel Friedman Car mold severe, beyond cleaning (C) Daniel Friedman

At below left we show the two dominant fungal growths on the sun-visor you can see at above-left, Cladosporium sphaerospermum and Ulocladium sp.-like. At below right we show our lab photos of white mold found on the drivers side door liner shown in the photo at above right - sample #2 in our car mold table. The phialids and spore clusters identify this fungus as Acremonium sp.

Car mold severe, beyond cleaning (C) Daniel Friedman Car mold catastrophe (C) Daniel Friedman

It was interesting to observe that while mold growth was thick on much of the vinyl covering the passenger seats and door liner center panels (above left, right, below left) some sections of vinyl in this vehicle resisted mold growth - such as the back panels of the front passenger seats (photo, below right).

Car mold severe, beyond cleaning (C) Daniel Friedman Car mold severe, beyond cleaning (C) Daniel Friedman

Moldy Automobile Carpeting

At our examination we saw water tracks in several areas, stains indicating leak points at the sun-roof, driver's side door, and trunk lid.

Our inspection and that of the owner suggested that there were multiple leaks that admitted rain and melting snow into the vehicle both in the passenger space and into the vehicle trunk. Indeed, the driver's seat and carpeting on the driver's side (photo below left) were soaking wet as were objects found stored in the trunk.

Car mold severe, beyond cleaning (C) Daniel Friedman Mold contamination of automobile carpeting (C) Daniel Friedman

Actually we expected to find more visible mold contamination of the floor carpets in this automobile than was visible (photos above). We don't yet know if the comparatively lower fungal growth (compared to the vinyl surfaces of seats) was due to the chemistry of the carpet, giving it mold resistance, or if it was because of the carpet's very wet condition.

The rubber surface of the car's brake pedal was covered in white mold (photo above left. In the lab we identified this fungus as Acremonium sp.

Moldy Car Contents

It was no surprise that we found heavy mold growth on a range of materials in the automobile's passenger compartment as well as in its trunk, including materials of rubber (boots), paper (currency, maps, etc), and nylon (umbrellas).

Car mold severe, beyond cleaning (C) Daniel Friedman Car mold severe, beyond cleaning (C) Daniel Friedman

Mold growth identified on moldy dollar bills - U.S. currency mold

As we report in the car mold table below, examining the moldy dollar bills found in this vehicle we identified several dominant mold genera/species: Memnoniella echinata -like spores & conidiophores (photo below left), Chaetomium sp., and what looks like Wallemia serbi. One other colorless smooth large mold spore was common and remained unidentified.

Memnoniella echinata Car mold severe, beyond cleaning (C) Daniel Friedman Car mold severe, beyond cleaning (C) Daniel Friedman

Car Components with Little or No Visible Mold Growth

Moldy car floor mat (C) D Friedman

Visible mold contamination was absent or comparatively light on the following interior surfaces of the vehicle:

  • Glass surfaces, interior of windows
  • Headliner
  • Plastic covering instruments in the dashboard
  • Radio surfaces
  • Vinyl inset panels on the rear of the front seats
  • Vinyl panels surrounding the (mold-contaminated vinyl) center panels on the front vehicle doors
  • Carpeting (was soaking wet)
  • Trunk liner

Table of Car Mold Test Samples Collected & Identification of Mold Genera/Species found in an automobile

Watch out: In our opinion it is generally not cost justified nor appropriate to test a moldy-smelling vehicle to identify which mold genera/species are present - the owner's money is better spent on cleaning and restoring the vehicle. However for academic reasons such as this study we do perform such tests.

Car Mold Contamination Sampling Methodology

Car mold severe, beyond cleaning (C) Daniel Friedman

The moldy car interior test samples listed in the table were collected using clear adhesive tape unless otherwise stated. A few samples were collected as bulk (a carpet snip and foam seat cushion snip).

Most of the surfaces in the vehicle were man-made materials, primarily plastics or synthetic fiber carpeting or liners but paper and other materials were present. We also sampled a few materials stored-in but not part of the vehicle itself.

Mold test samples might also have been collected using a vacuum cassette approach (see CARPET MOLD CONTAMINATION) but as most of the porous car materials such as carpeting and trunk liner were soaking wet we did not consider that a useful approach. We do make use of this approach in studying vehicles that are not wet nor badly contaminated.

A survey might have tested for airborne mold levels in the vehicle but as the vehicle was open to the outdoors (confounding the sample) and as there were readily-available surface samples we did not consider air sampling as a useful step.

See ACCURACY OF VARIOUS MOLD TEST METHODS for our reservations about air sampling to characterize indoor or enclosed environments.

Table of Car Mold Contamination Test Sample Results Identify Mold Growth in Vehicle

Sample ID Location

Lab Results / Comments[1]

1 Driver's door liner - black mold [in process]
2 Driver's door liner - white mold Acremonium sp. fungal spores & phialids in dense colonization
3 Dashboard left side (abuts door when door is shut) Cladosporium sp.; tentatively, C sphaerospermum
4 Driver side door rubber gasket (foam rubber-like) Acremonium sp. fungal spores and hyphae
5 Steering wheel outer surface

Cladosporium sphaerospermum
Penicillium sp.

6 Steering wheel center

Penicillium sp. - dominant
Acremonium sp. fungal spores and hyphae - present

7 Brake pedal upper surface (rubber) Acremonium sp. fungal spores and hyphae, almost exclusive
8 Driver seat headrest

Penicillium sp. - dominant
Trichoderma viride -like, frequent

9 Driver door window bottom edge interior horizontal gasket (rubber) Acremonium sp. fungal spores and hyphae,
10 Driver seat cushion, exposed foam (wet - tape sample) unidentified mitospores, C. sphaeropsermum-like, along with fabric fibers
11 Driver seat cushion, exposed foam (wet - bulk sample, foam snip) analysis held
12 Handbrake handle (plastic) Acremonium-like
13 Driver head-rest side (different colony from #8) Penicillium sp., dominant
Acremonium-like, present
Cladosporium sp; - incidental
Cladosporium sphaerospermum - incidental
14 Auto registration sticker (paper) Cladosporium sp. / C. sphaerospermum
15 Driver seat belt (nylon)

Penicillium sp. spores, conidiophores; - dominant
Trichoderma viride spores; - dominant
Aspergillus niger spores - present
unidentified hyaline amerospores


Auto contents: U.S. currency, $1. bills, visibly moldy, from center console (bulk sample)

analysis held
17 Auto contents: U.S. currency, $1. bills, visibly moldy, from center console
(tape sample)

Memnoniella echinata-like
Chaetomium sp.
Wallemia serbi
Unidentified hyaline smooth mold spores
Incidental mite fecals & Cladosporium sp.

18 Driver seat side (vinyl)

Aspergillus niger spores & conidiophores in dense colonization
Trichoderma viride spores

19 Rear seat surface, olive-colored mold Aspergillus sp. spores & conidiophores in dense colonization
20 Rear seat surface, green + white mold

Penicillium sp. spores & conidiophores; dominant
Aspergillus niger spores, present

21 Auto contents: blue umbrella, black mold-suspect specks Aspergillus niger - in dense colonization
Aspergillus sp; present
22 Headliner over driver's seat (plastic-like material) Cladosporium sphaerospermum
23 Sun roof gasket (rubber/vinyl) Non-fungal material including insect fragments
Pithomyces chartarum
- present
Cladosporium sphaerospermum - present
24 Floor mat (carpet, synthetic, wet) analysis held
25 Floor mat (carpet, synthetic, wet) (Bulk sample) analysis held
26 Trunk liner, rigid synthetic fabric Aspergillus sp., in dense colonization, spores & conidiophores
Cladosporium sphaerospermum - present
27 Door, rear passenger, center liner (soft vinyl) Cladosporium sp; C. cladoporioides-like;
28 Door, rear passenger, center liner (soft vinyl) Cladosporium sp.
29 Door, rear passenger, center liner (soft vinyl) Pen/Asp spores, spore chains,
fungal hyphae; (no conidiophores)
30 Sun visor, driver's side (vinyl) Ulocladium sp. -like
Cladosporium sphaerospermum


[1] lab analysis was completed on 6/30/2012; all samples processed were photo-documented under the microscope, with selections appearing in this report.



Continue reading at MOLD CLEANUP GUIDE- HOW TO GET RID OF MOLD or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.


For advice on cleaning up a mold contaminated auto, or mold remediation for a boat, RV, truck that smells moldy but may be salvageable, see CAR SMELL - Mold DEODORIZING.

Also see CAR SMELL & ODOR Diagnosis for our complete diagnostic list of odors in cars


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Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) About Mold-Contaminated Vehicles: Boats, Cars, Trucks, RVs etc

Question / Comment: Everyone should have their vehicle tested for mold ?

A good study overall and confirms my findings as my partner and I have been testing vehicles for several months. Everyone should have their vehicle tested. New or used and should also google the Tim Greene story about hoe Toxic mold almost took his life. - John Gainey, 5/22/12

Reply: we disagree.

Thanks for the comments, John. Indeed a moldy car, because you drive around in a small enclosed space, can significantly affect those who for any reason are sensitive. But it would be improper and unethical to suggest that everyone who owns a vehicle should spend on mold testing for the vehicle, because

  • only a small percentages of vehicles have mold contamination
  • an "air test" alone would be completely unreliable as a screen for the presence of problematic mold in a vehicle (car, boat, RV, airplane), in particular if negative results are obtained.
  • a very moldy car is visibly or often by smell very obviously contaminated - without testing

More useful would be advice that helped people decide when inspection or testing for mold are actually appropriate. At MOLD ACTION GUIDE - WHAT TO DO ABOUT MOLD readers will see an article titled MOLD / ENVIRONMENTAL EXPERT, HIRE ? - that pertains to buildings not cars, but might be helpful in illustrating the type of reasoning that an unbiased expert should offer.

Where car mold expertise can be helpful is in tracking down a musty moldy odor whose source is not visibly obvious. Follow the leaks and see what got wet from water, antifreeze, or other similar problems.

Watch out: while ozone treatments are a common "deodorizing" and "mold killing" service offered by car cleanup companies, overdosing a vehicle with ozone is way too easy - the ozone generator is operating inside of a very small space. Too often the result is oxidation of plastics or vinyls in the vehicle that leave it with a horrible chemical smell that is corrected only by gutting the damaged materials. See OZONE MOLD / ODOR TREATMENT WARNINGS for details.


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