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What's that smell?

October 11, 2010
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Detailers work hard on selling the benefits of washing, waxing, and cleaning interiors of automobiles to remove soil and bacteria, but are rarely aware of fungi lurking in air conditioning systems. These fungi are often in air ducts and are dispersed into the vehicle, landing on leather, carpeting, carpeting and car seats every time the AC is turned on.

A study out of the Georgia State University Environmental Research Center by Dr. Robert Simmons suggests that occupants with mold sensitivity exposed to the types of fungi found in automobile AC systems could become ill. “Sick car syndrome,” as it has become known, can be a real danger and a hidden cause of allergies. As people spend more time in the confined interior of their automobiles doing business, eating, and transporting friends and family, they spend more and more time exposed to these bacteria. If the air conditioner produces a dank smell, chances are organisms similar to mold and fungus are growing on the surface area of these AC systems.

For many years, Simmons has been studying this problem, which affects millions of automobiles on the road. Air samples were taken from air conditioning vents of several random vehicles and cultured for fungi. Some of the fungi observed included species of Acremonium, Aspergillius, Alternaria, Aurebasidium, Cladosporium and Penicillum at high levels.

“A lot of new vehicles have mold in the air conditioning system,” explained Clarence Ditlow, executive director of the Center for Auto Safety (CAS), a non-profit organization founded by Consumers Union and Ralph Nader in 1970 (now independent of both).

The solution
Ozone is a popular form of odor treatment. Most detailers use a small, portable ozone machine to treat odor problems ranging anywhere from animal and smoke to spilled, rotten food embedded in vehicle fabric.

Treating vehicle interiors and AC systems with ozone is an effective way of sanitizing potentially harmful substances such as pathogens and mold spores.

Ozone generators used in the detailing industry operate by means of a corona discharge tube. Most machines do not require input from an oxygen source other than surrounding air, making machine use simple and cost effective.

Machine capacity is measured by mg/hr or g/hr; the quantity of ozone produced vs. in-air flow. Small ozone machines can be purchased to treat one vehicle at a time or larger units can be used to treat several vehicles at once by hooking up hoses to individual vehicles.

Consumer education
Consumers can take many steps to prevent foul odors in their vehicles. Obvious causes of odor should be removed, (it’s time remove those fast-food wrappers from under the seats) and the vehicle should be vacuumed and kept clean at all times. “In order for ozone machines to work, you have to remove the source of the odor. It’s only a temporary fix if you don’t remove source,” said Bruce Bejsovec, president of Recondition USA, Inc.

The most common complaint of vehicle odor is cigarette smoke. “In this case, vehicle owners who smoke in the car should have their cars treated occasionally as preventative maintenance,” said Curtis Nipp, general manager at CB&I Howe-Baker Engineers, LTD.

Consumers who are chemically sensitive can also have their cars treated periodically to prevent any reaction to irritants that may build up over time.

Gina Budhai is managing partner of Car Pool Detail LLC, Richmond, VA, and president of the National Association of Professional Detailing and Reconditioning (NAPDR). She can be reached at: 804-288-1515,

Diana Bean is vice president of Every Detail Inc. in Lodi, CA and is chair-woman of the NAPDR. She can be contacted at:

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