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Toxic Cars in Law Enforcement

Of all the bad things that have happened in recent years, one stands out in its possible long-term consequences for anybody who works around cars. That event was the flooding of New Orleans, which was unlike anything we have ever seen before. It carries some deadly possibilities.

In New Orleans, there were millions of tons of contaminated water, sewage, and dirt that were deposited on thousands of flooded vehicles and pieces of equipment. Estimates suggest that nearly a half-million vehicles were flooded during the Gulf Coast hurricanes. These cars since have been distributed throughout the country. Involvement with a New Orleans flood vehicle easily could be life threatening.

After the waters receded, insurance companies inspected the flooded vehicles and determined that it was too risky or too costly to fix them, so tens of thousands of cars were declared total losses. Once the cars were totaled, they were sent to holding areas to wait for an opening in a salvage auction. Then a few days before their assigned auction, the cars were moved to the auction site for bidder presale viewing. Finally, auction day and bidders from all over the country arrived to pick the bones of the totaled vehicles.

Why would bidders fly thousands of miles to buy totaled, flood-damaged, vehicles? Because they were damaged by a flood and not by an accident or a fire. Most flood-damaged cars are a nasty mess, but they are mostly free of serious body damage. Without body damage, flood cars can often be brought back with just an aggressive cleaning and detailing. Cheap labor, a few jugs of cleaner and what was a disgusting mess yesterday “looks” like a normal car today!

But for this to work, there has to be an end-user market. In many states, totaled cars have a status declaration on the face of their titles using terms like salvage, total or flood damaged. The object of branding is to let all future buyers know the car has had serious problems. This is a good process that works well until a crook buys the car.

For many do-it-yourselfers, salvage cars can be an excellent buy. Totaled cars have very low value even when they have been reconstructed. Therefore, do-it-yourselfers can knowingly buy one at a good price and invest sweat-equity to have a nice, reliable car with a much lower cash outlay.

But do-it-yourselfers don’t create problems. Crooks take advantage of the lack of branding laws in some states to erase the title declaration. They do this by obtaining a new title in a state that doesn’t brand them. Then with a new unbranded title in hand and a great-looking, freshly cleaned and detailed car, the crook puts the “like new” car up for sale. Usually a total lie, but in fact many flood cars from New Orleans were actually new.

Consider an average late model car that would retail for $20,000. On flood cars, purchase prices are often less than $1,000. Naturally, there are expenses for cleaning, reconditioning, transporting and re-titling. That may amount to $2,000 for a grand total of $3,000 out of pocket. This $3,000 spent followed by a quick and dirty below-the-book sale for $20,000 nets a cool $17,000 profit. Greed, dishonesty and clever ways to get around laws puts thousands of cars intended for salvage back in the system every year.

New Orleans Cars Are Different

The flood cars from New Orleans are vastly different than average flood cars. They may be carrying deadly toxins. Typically, floodwaters rise quickly and fall quickly—but not in New Orleans. The floodwaters rushed into the city and didn’t leave. Thousands of flooded cars sat in water for days or weeks.

This isn’t the normal silt-laden river water but a mix of horrific contaminants that are best described as unbelievably dangerous. The mix consisted of dirty, stagnant water, millions of gallons of raw sewage from flooded sewage plants, the decaying remains of thousands of drowned animals, and garbage from flooded garbage cans, Dumpsters, and every other conceivable source. Each day brought more pollution. Some scientists claim that the water contained more than 50 times the safe limit of many toxins and probably could have been labeled as hazardous material.

Thousands of vehicles and all sorts of equipment remained in the vile toxin-laden soup for days or weeks. As they sat in the polluted water, the flooded cars became heavily contaminated. Bacteria and toxins settled into and coated the cars end to end, top to bottom, inside and out. Bacteria infested and multiplied in upholstery, carpeting and in every spot where their life-sustaining dirt and moisture landed. Flood cars are always bad cars, but these are worse than bad because even parts from the ones that made it to the scrap yard can hurt you.

Some scientists believe colonies of bacteria can outlive any creature on Earth and do it under highly bizarre and extreme conditions. There are bacteria that live underwater, others in subzero temperatures and still others in conditions with temperatures so high it would boil our blood. I guess that makes living in a food-rich, moist, temperate car akin to bacteria nirvana.

Another factor to consider is that some bacteria have the ability to go dormant, possibly for years or decades, and then revive when conditions are right. Right conditions could be a warm, moist, food-rich cut on someone’s finger, maybe yours. This leaves us with tens of thousands of cars and untold numbers of car parts that could be contaminated with deadly toxins. Without sterilization, flood cars and parts from flood cars might remain dangerously contaminated for years.

Law Enforcement

Here is how it affects law enforcement. If you do pre-purchase inspections, roadside vehicle searches, impound searches, work on or around used cars, or handle used parts, you’re at risk. One concern is most of us in the business don’t pay much attention to all the tiny everyday nicks and scratches that happen around cars and equipment.

Your techs will be handling used parts. In today’s used parts market, cars and parts are shipped all over the country, even the world, to fill orders submitted by local yards. But the problems aren’t isolated to body and interior parts; used engine, suspension, transmission, differential parts, etc., can all be infested with deadly toxins as well.

But that normally ignored tiny scratch might trigger a dangerous infection—so dangerous that if not treated quickly and properly could lead to a life-threatening condition called sepsis. The dangers are so real that just being around a flood car or flood-car parts takes on a very scary new prospect.

Although it may be uncomfortable, if you don’t know the history of the car or part you’re working with, wear gloves, long sleeves, long pants, and eye protection. Nothing short of armor will 100% protect you, so if you get scratched on a suspicious car or used part, treat it immediately and aggressively.

What To Look For

It isn’t all gloom and doom though as flood cars are typically relatively easy to spot when you know what to look for. There may be obvious signs: water stains, new carpet, new seat inserts, sand, silt, musty odor, strong smell of ozone, strong smell of deodorizer, rusty screw or bolt heads inside the car. Any of these conditions could mean you’re looking at the results of flooding, and that means you have to be very careful.

I’ve talked to some technicians who laugh and say no one would be so stupid that they would leave such things for people to see. It has nothing to do with stupidity and everything to do with arrogance. The crooks know that most folks are either greedy and always trying to “get over,” or they fall in love with a particular car and are blind to flaws. So yeah, there are frequently very obvious signs. Take a minute and look for them.

In case you aren’t on overload yet, there’s still more to worry about. It isn’t just the car either; even used parts can be dangerous, especially body and interior parts. Just like the car itself, carefully check used parts. Look for mud stains, sand or silt deposits in cracks and crevices, and unusual rust on fasteners. Most important, be very careful handling used parts.

Undercover Vehicles

For those of you who don’t buy or install used parts, there is yet another way to get hurt. Some large fleets buy late model, nontraditional vehicles for undercover work. Some small departments buy low mileage, used cars for their patrol fleets. That can bite you too as a large portion of the flood cars were part of dealership new and used car inventories.

I had the opportunity to consult with a small agency on the purchase of a used cruiser with only 500 miles showing on its odometer. The car had a full police package and was claimed to be surplus from a big fleet. Most enticing was a great price that allowed purchase without applying to the town council for additional appropriations. It was one of those rare, too-good-to-be-true deals. Virtually new vehicle, super price, already equipped, right color combo, etc.

The used cruiser was to convert an existing four-car force into a five-car force, and as luck would have it, the person responsible for buying this vehicle never had heard of title searches and such. He had done this before without problems, but fortunately had a couple of technical questions for me. We chatted, I answered his technical questions, and asked him about the car. He told me what a great deal it was and how it fit his budget.

I asked him about the results of his title search. Long pause. What title search? After I explained the benefits, he got a Carfax Vehicle History Report, and sure enough, his too-good-to-be-true car had a very checkered, hidden past.

Every flood vehicle and every part of every flood vehicle can be literally teeming with infectious bacteria. Fortunately, flood vehicles do contain clues if you know what to look for. Here’s a list of general precautions: Managers should inform every person who handles parts or the cars themselves about the risks. Managers should implement a recommended avoidance program and a system for reporting and treating injuries no matter how small. Look at seams in body panels and behind door panels and trunk lining for water stains or bits of mud. Look for signs of mold or mildew. Visual signs of mold or a moldy smell could mean flood damage. Although carpeting and upholstery can be cleaned and deodorized, heat will usually bring the smell back. A trick is to moisten a spot on the carpet and on the seat then use a hair dryer to heat the spots. If this brings out a strong odor of mud or mold, be suspicious.

Newer carpeting or repaired seats could mean a history of flood damage. A lighted mechanic’s mirror used to look under the dash can show mud and water marks that cannot be removed. Look for unusual oxidation on aluminum parts under the hood. Be especially alert if the oxidation forms a line around items in the engine bay.

Verify the function of all electrical and electronic items on the car. Examine the inside of the vehicle for rust on metal parts that should not rust, especially inside the glove box and console. Before buying any vehicle, always perform a Carfax history search.

Pat Goss is the resident master technician for Motorweek TV (PBS), a columnist for the Washington Post, and the host of radio and cable shows discussing vehicle maintenance. He also was a consultant to the Prince George’s County, MD Police Department on fleet maintenance, and he is the president of Goss’ Garage in Seabrook, MD. He can be reached at

Published in Police Fleet Manager, Sep/Oct 2006

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