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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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Daniel Friedman, Steve Lewis
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.
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.
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
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.
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).
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.
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).
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.
Car Components with Little or No Visible Mold Growth
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
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.
Continue reading at MOLD CLEANUP GUIDE- HOW TO GET RID OF MOLD or select a topic from the More Reading links shown below.
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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
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 EXPERT, WHEN TO 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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