July 19, 2013 at 7:43 AM ET
Is your washing machine growing hidden mold? Lawsuits now accuse the top companies of making defective machines.
We're talking about some of the most popular models from the most popular companies: front-loading washing machines that grow mold where you can't even see it, causing your clothes to reek, and bacteria to grow. Now there are accusations that at least one of the companies knew about the problem for years, but sold the machines anyway.
In 2005, Midwestern mom Maggie O'Brien bought a brand-new Whirlpool front-loader washing machine, price tag $1,000. "It was new technology and less water and less detergent," she told us.
"You thought, 'I'm getting a great deal here'?"
"I really did," Maggie said.
But just months later, her clothes started to reek. "It smelled like a sock had been left in an old gym bag," Maggie said. "That's the smell it was."
Experts say it was mold, growing and spreading inside what Maggie called "the thousand-dollar machine that's supposed to be washing my clothes."
In fact, there are many complaints of mold in popular front-loaders built until the late 2000s, from Whirlpool, Kenmore, Bosch and LG. Angry customers are now venting about the issue in YouTube videos. "You end up with a funky smell that you can't get rid of," a woman says in one of them.
Consumers are suing the companies, calling it fraud. Jonathan Selbin is the lawyer suing Whirlpool over its popular Duet models sold from 2001 to 2008, many of them still in homes today. He said the issue affects "millions" of people.
"Why do front-loading washing machines have this problem versus top-loaders?" we asked him.
"On a top-loader, nature takes care of the problem for you; the moist air rises out of the machine," Selbin explained. But on a front-loader, he said, "You've got a sealed environment, and so the water and the moisture stays in here. It's a very humid environment ... and it breeds mold."
Selbin says Whirlpool even knew about the defect for years. A 2004 internal memo shows the company identified the problem and was trying to fix it, the company's lead engineer saying that while mold can exist in any washer, their front-load machines are the "ideal environment for molds ... we are fooling ourselves if we think we can eliminate mold...." But the lawsuit says Whirlpool kept selling the machines anyway.
"Boy, that makes me angry," Maggie O'Brien said.
Whirlpool even markets a product to fix it, called "Affresh": tablets that clean the machine. But consumers have to pay for it.
"I think it's outrageous," Selbin said. "A company sells a defective product and then they sell you a fix for that product."
The companies say customers are the ones causing the mold by misusing the machine or not maintaining it, and that only a very small percentage of people have a problem, Whirlpool telling us the lawsuits are without merit.
But Maggie O'Brien says she's been hung out to dry, because Whirlpool never gave her a refund, and she had to buy a new washing machine — a top-loader this time. "You want your money back?" we asked her.
"I do. And everyone else to get their money back."
Here's the good news: All of these companies have made design changes that experts say have eliminated the mold issue in the newest machines. If you want to know if your washing machine is affected, consult the list below.
So what can you do if you have a smelly machine? If you don't want to go out to buy a new machine, the companies say there are things you can do to minimize the mold.
Here's the takeaway: Leave the door propped open when you're not using it; that way air is getting in. (Be careful if you have small kids; it's dangerous if they climb in.) Also, run a bleach cycles once in a while; that cleans the machine. And wipe down the entire machine after every use; that means right inside the door and inside the bin. There's no guarantee it will fix the problem, but the companies say it's your best bet.
Washing machine models named in lawsuits include:
Whirlpool front-load washers sold between 2001 and December 2008, without a steam feature:
Sears/Kenmore front-load washers sold between 2001 and December 2008, without a steam feature:
LG front-load washers sold between August 1, 2003-December 31, 2007, without a steam feature:
Bosch front-loading washers:
To read statements from manufacturers in response to this report, click here.