July 4, 2014 at 7:40 AM ET
When you rent a car, you're worried about the price: Should you get a midsize, a full-size, or an SUV? But what you may not think about is who was in the car before you: Were they clean? Were they sick? And could that make you sick?
To find out what might be lurking inside rental cars, TODAY national investigative correspondent Jeff Rossen and his team rented six vehicles from Orlando, Florida, outlets of the top rental companies, including sedans, an SUV and a minivan. In some of them they found visible filth, including mystery stains as well as a hairball.
But it's what you don't see that can actually be dangerous, so the Rossen team hired scientists from a certified laboratory. Armed with gloves and goggles, they swabbed every car from top to bottom: the steering wheels, gearshifts, door handles, even the GPS units.
Two of the cars were very clean and passed their tests. But inside the minivan, the tests showed dangerous bacteria, including something called human bacteroides all over the steering wheel. Translation: Human fecal matter.
"This is a serious public health problem; it's a real wake-up call to America," said Dr. Robert Glatter, an emergency room physician at New York City's Lenox Hill Hospital with whom TODAY shared the results. "We're talking about diarrhea, vomiting, leading to dehydration — leading to very, very bad situations."
Not only that: a child car seat the investigative team rented tested positive for sewage contamination. "That's completely unacceptable. That's gross," said Bob Minelli of CheapCarRentalTips.com, a rental car expert who ran a local franchise of a big company for years. He said he was not surprised by what Rossen and his team found.
"You should never assume the car is clean," Minelli warned. "Most of the time, they're just looking inside the cars, peeking in and visually trying to see if it's clean or not and letting it go out to the general public."
Watch: What to look out for in a rental car, and how to stay safe
In all, Rossen's team collected 25 samples from the six vehicles, and 22 of them tested positive for germs, some more dangerous than others. The dirtiest spots were the steering wheels and door handles, which were teeming with bacteria. But there was some good news: Most of the GPS units were totally clean.
Minelli said the rental companies are trying to get cars out as fast as possible. "I think they're focused on profit instead of focusing on the customer's health and safety first."
To stay healthy when renting a car, wipe down all the surfaces in the car with anti-bacterial wipes. If you see any visible filth, return the car immediately and trade it for another one. The rental car companies say they're happy to replace the car if a customer isn't satisfied.