Is Your Car a Germobile?

Experts uncover the germs and allergens that lurk in automobiles.

ByABC News
September 19, 2008, 11:06 AM

Oct. 1, 2008 — -- As Americans spend more time behind the wheel, they may be unknowingly acting as a chauffeur to a menagerie of invisible passengers. Millions of germs and fungi, including bacteria and mold, are probably hitching a ride in your hatchback.

There's no question one of the main reasons a car gathers germs is because few people clean the interiors well or disinfect them.

In some ways, cars are temporary living spaces that we often overlook as a place where microorganisms can grow and thrive.

In a recent British study done for, microbiologists randomly tested both the interiors and trunks of 25 cars. They found that the typical British automobile had, on average, 285 types of bacteria present in every square inch of the vehicle. They identified at least 10 major types of bacteria.

Anthony Hilton, a microbiologist from Ashton University who led the study, believed steering wheels would house the most germs. However, stick shifts -- with 356 germs per square inch -- did worse, likely because they have a smaller surface area that concentrates the bugs.

And the nastiest harbor for bacterial refugees -- the carpet of the trunk, where scientists found 300 to 400 bacteria per square inch.

Most of the bacteria in cars came from dead skin cells and soil tracked in on shoes, hands or animal paws. People generally don't get infected by these pathogens. (Although one car that was swabbed for the study contained microbes linked to fecal contamination.)

"Our study found organisms in a car that are not uncommon to be found around a toilet," said Hilton. "If someone gave you some food to eat while you were sitting on the toilet, you would be repulsed."

Yet, plenty of people think nothing of nibbling in their vehicles.

Microbes also enter through the air and heating vents, although that's beginning to change. Newer models in the United Kingdom have more sophisticated ventilation systems, along with pollen or bacteriological filters, to prevent airborne particles from getting in, Hilton explained.