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Most of the time when I first turn on the A/C in our 2008 Toyota Sienna, the air that blows out has a very distinct chemical - nasty smell. After a while it seems to go away. I'm not sure if I just get used to the smell or it actually goes away. When I just turn on the fan with no A/C there is no smell. Also if I drive somewhere then leave shortly thereafter, it doesn't stink when I fire it up the 2nd (or subsequent) time. Should I be concerned for my health or safety?

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Can you give more information on the smell? Is it a mildew smell (think dirty socks)? If not, it could be engine coolant or A/C refrigerant. – S_Niles Mar 8 '11 at 18:49
I think it's probably mildew. I guess I'm not good at describing smells but that sound right. – polarbear Mar 9 '11 at 8:26
It smell like when you have a refrigerator closed for couple days .closed then you open – user3094 Apr 30 '13 at 22:58
You also should refer to related questions here and to the right side of the page: and are definitely relevant. – Bob Cross May 1 '13 at 11:38
up vote 37 down vote accepted

This is a common problem for all air conditioners (in a car or not), and is caused by mildew growth. In cars it often happens when people run their A/C on the recirculation all of the time, or the drain gets clogged. The system doesn't dry out completely and mildew starts to grow.

You should be concerned about your health, especially if you have allergies. Just imagine all that mildew and god knows what else growing in there and being spewed in your face every time you turn the A/C on... Here's a link to US EPA page describing how mold may affect health, if you are still not convinced.

The things you should do to remove the cause of your problem and prevent it from happening again:

  • Run it on recirculation only when something stinks outside, or you want it to cool down quickly. Fresh air from outside will help it dry out better.

  • Make sure that your A/C drain isn't clogged and there is no water building up.

And this is what you could do to remove the unpleasant effects:

  • Run the heater on full for a while, that will dry out the system and might 'cook' the mildew.

  • Change your cabin air filter (if you have one).

  • There are special sprays sold to remove the mildew from the A/C system (read the instructions carefully before using them). Just using Lysol or some other stuff like that will work too, but the smell will be more unpleasant.

I suggest that you do all of this, and in the specified order.

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In HVAC this is known as stinky sock syndrome... – Jacob Feb 27 '14 at 21:10
Why would outside air help dry it? Also, what is "it", the air inside? I imagine the outside air is much more humid. Circulated air is more preferred because it makes the interior dryer. So I must be thinking about this the wrong way... – Bort Jun 28 '15 at 19:45
@Bort it largely depends on where you live. Here in Arizona, outside air is most definitely less humid than inside air. – Hellreaver Nov 4 '15 at 19:23

I have observed this - kind of like an acrid or "vinegar" smell.

You can help prevent this by turning OFF the air conditioner a couple/few minutes prior to turning off the auto.

As others said, it is caused by growth of biological bacteria/fungal and turning off early helps dry the system and assists in prevention as it reduces the moisture retained in the system.

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When you say chemical do you mean mildew? Some cars have an issue where condensation from the exchanger will pool up in the ducts and allow mildew to form. This is frequently the smell that comes from the vents when they fist start blowing.

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I don't know if this is the OP's problem, but I have a vehicle that exhibits this symptom. Could you edit your answer to include details for resolving the issue? – Iszi Mar 8 '11 at 4:41
Unfortunately the only way to fix the problem is to clean the air system. You would only have to clean the exchanger or some part of the air system there. – QueueHammer Mar 11 '11 at 6:19

a possible solution to your a/c smell is to change the pollen filter as this tends to clog after some time it should be changed annually hope this helps

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The simplest/easiest/quickest way is to just to turn on the heater full blast for about 5 minutes. This will dry out the air conditioner and kill the mold and bacteria.

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I'm curious as to how this would work since the heater core is usually after the evaporator core? – ᴘᴀᴜʟsᴛᴇʀ2 Sep 14 '15 at 23:34

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