Radioactive Mushrooms

I received my semi-annual proof of auto insurance cards yesterday. As is custom, inside the envelope is a sheet of addendums to the coverage. This one contains two specific policy exceptions that seem juxtaposed: fungi and radiation.

I could joke that this means I’m no longer covered by automobile losses caused by radioactive mushrooms. Radation I can understand, but fungi? My interest was piqued because the actuaries think it’s significant enough of a risk to call it out as an exception.

So, without further ado, it’s time for a little Fungi 101…

Fungi are one of the five kingdoms of living things. If you remember, biology 101, those are: animals, plants, monera (bacteria, blue-green algae), protista (amoebas), and fungi. Fungi are a lot like plants, except they lack chlorophyll and, therefore, cannot manufacture their own food by photosynthesis. More on that in a moment.

Fungi are ubiquitous in the environment and, by some estimates, make up over 85% of the organic biomass in soil. I point this out because killing fungi is not something taken lightly: it soon becomes a scorched earth policy. Some fungi are very useful, like the crimini mushrooms on my pizza, the yeast used to ferment beer or leaven bread, mold in cheeses and penicillin.
Some are bad like jock itch and athlete’s foot, hallucinogenic mushrooms and anthrax. Somewhere in the middle are corn smut — a hazard for farmers, a delicacy to some.

As a general rule, fungi love dark, damp places where there is decaying organic material. (Hint: the wood, sheetrock, carpeting and fabric in your home could be vulnerable.) They “eat” by secreting enzymes to break down complex compounds into simpler compounds that are then absorbed by the fungi and digested. The digested nutrients are called metabolites. Primary metabolites consist of cellulose and other compounds that are used for energy to grow and reproduce.
Secondary metabolites, called mycotoxins, are produced to give fungi a competitive edge against other microorganisms, including other fungi. There are over one hundred recognized mycotoxins, and many which are harmful to humans and animals when inhaled, ingested or brought into contact with human skin. (There is some debate on the true threat of mycotoxins, however. Regardless, 10% of the population and 40% of those with asthma is significant.) There have been frequent reports in the news about black mold in homes.

Now, apparently, there is a perceived hazard to automobiles.

3 thoughts on “Radioactive Mushrooms

  1. The concern is molds, which are difficult to extricate. However, since cars are mostly metal and plastic, there’s no risk to the car being structurally compromised by the mold, unlike houses, which are made of wood, a substance reknown for burning, rotting, warping, being eaten by insects, and supporting fungi.

    There is some theoretical potential damage if the upholstry or ventilation system get infested, though it would seem to be a risk for convertibles or people who habitually leave their windows open during hurricanes.

    Of course, as the folks on Mythbusters showed, someone will always buy a stinky car… for the right price. The market potential is teenagers learning to drive: a win-win scenario 😉

  2. We have a house in our neighborhood that would be an understatement to call an eyesore, which had an 70’s vintage Chevy Monte Carlo that had been sitting in the backyard, which was recently sold, and the car pulled from the yard.

    While the car had looked it was covered with moss, once you got a closer look when it was on the street you could see that the moss had actually taken root in the metal of the car, as if the wax and paint had been worn down from erosion over time to give the moss a nice rough surface to adhere too.

    I sort of doubt this is what the insurance companies have in mind, and my guess is it’s probably interior spaces they are worried about.

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