How to find & cure plastic like odors and smells in buildings:
This article discusses common odor sources, including indoor plastic odors or chemical smells observed at some installations of vinyl exterior building siding or in other plastic or vinyl building products such as windows and trim.
We describe common sources of plastic or vinyl type indoor odors and we provide a checklist that can help pinpoint the source of such odors by noting information about the building construction, building materials, HVAC systems, weather, sunlight, temperature, time of day, wind direction, and other clues.
We provide links to articles detailing possible health effects of exposure to indoor VOCs and plastic odors and smells.
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A variety of common building products, coatings, and furnishings may exude odors that disturb at least some occupants. Most of these occur in new building products and dissipate fairly rapidly. Other building odors or "house B.O." may be persistent or may be intermittent but unpleasant.
Some of these plastic-like odor sources in buildings can be tricky to track down. Here we list some common building products that may produce chemical or plastic like odors. We provide some suggestions for tracking down these odor sources in buildings, and we offer suggestions for removing or curing these odors.
Siding, window, screen, & other "plastic" odors: We've investigated a number of reports of strange odors in residential buildings that were ultimately traced to vinyl or plastic which was outgassing. We've observed this phenomenon with vinyl siding, plastic or vinyl window or door screens, and plastic or vinyl windows.
A key diagnostic step in finding odor source was the observation that the odors were strongest when the material under investigation was exposed to sunlight or other sources of heat. [This article is under development, September 2007, and we welcome content suggestions or questions].
We offer below a list of clues, focused on common sources of plastic-like odors, that any home owner, home inspector, or other investigator can follow in seeking to pinpoint the source of an annoying or obnoxious odor in buildings. Readers are asked to contact us to suggest additions or corrections to this list.
Often people's perception of odors varies with time and exposure or with a number of other site factors that make it hard to track down just where a smell is coming from. But if we think carefully about when, and under what conditions we notice odors, often that information is instrumental in tracking down an odor to its source and thus in helping us decide if an odor refers to a potentially dangerous or unhealthy condition.
This list is in simple alphabetic order, not in order of probable cause, importance, or health risk, all of which can vary widely.
You can start tracking down the cause or source of an odor in one or more of several ways:
The jury may be out on this question. Plastics are used in an enormous range of building materials and consumer products, and plastics vary widely in their properties, chemical composition, tendency to give off gases, smells, odors, and in possible health concern.
One of the plastics that has received a lot of study are those using vinyl chloride. This product might be present in some common building products such as vinyl siding and vinyl windows or screens. The US EPA has classified vinyl chloride as a Group A, human carcinogen.
Really? as with most environmental contaminants, potential contaminants & worries, the dose makes the poison. Unless you know the exposure level and duration as well as the individual health risk profile of building occupants, in at least some cases you cannot conclude the actual / probable health risk for building occupants.
For details see PLASTIC or VINYL ODOR EXPOSURE - we have moved the plastic odor or burned plastic exposure discussion there.
That article discusses PVC exposure and also more
PLASTIC, BURNED ODOR EXPOSURE HAZARDS
Watch out: Vinyl chloride might be present in gas form as a colorless, flammable gas with a faintly sweet odor at levels of about 3000 ppm (the odor detection threshold). We provide the US EPA health report on vinyl chloride
at VINYL CHLORIDE HEALTH INFO.
(Mar 27, 2015) Faye Norris said:
After a flood, my vinyl flooring squares were taken up, then i had new vinyl squares installed (2 weeks ago). There is a strong plastic smell that lingers & I'm wondering if this is a health hazard. It might be odor from the squares or the glue used to install them. I am concerned about breathing plastic.
There might be a hazard; usually the plastic odor outgasses fairly rapidly. You can increase the speed of that process by both heat and fresh-air ventilation.
Try the odor source track-down procedures at ODOR DIAGNOSIS CHECKLIST, PROCEDURE
2015/11/26 Beth said:
My sister had me sleep in the garage, ironically, because I was needed to get away from the second hand smoke of my apt. She has a chemical sensitivity, I guess, so, she claimed that I may introduce a new smell to her apt. "and make her apt a -hostile- environment" for her. It was enough that my mom was staying there, to help bc of sister's meniscus problem. A second person would be too much. "Sorry I don't have a 2 bedroom." I already respiratory problems, asthma, and sleep apnea. Garage smelled bad. Thought it would be better than strong second hand smoke from new occupant under me in my apt.
I brought camping cot and very warm sleeping bag. And, my CPAP machine, and my oxygen tank for my 1 liter supplemental oxygen. CPAP machine sat on a box 10 inches up from concrete garage floor. CPAP machine sucks air through 1inch vent in back of machine and has a Hepa filter for this 1inch. After 45minutes or so, I opened the big garage door. Surprisingly, it -Never-smelled any better! My body told me in the first 10 minutes, -go home- , -pack-up, un-plug, load-up, in the 20° F, at 11:pm, and drive the 20 minutes home. I didn't, until 3 hrs total later.
Felt a sucking pain in my chest, like not enough blood, or, oxygen. Just smelled like car was -on- even though it wasn't, and, even though big garage door was open. Not much wind. I was sleeping in front of car, far from big open door, and near wall adjoining apt. No water-heater, no wh-vent (says sister). I am thinking that the concrete absorbs the carbon monoxide and benzene from the car emissions. I had shortness of breathe, and that lingering sucking pain in my chest, with some arm pains for 2 days. Went to the gym, and -really- sob trying to do usual exercises. Finally, better at gym, after 2 hours struggling approx. Then, today, still recurring sucking pain and sob, but seems to be lessening.
2015/11/27 RE-posting anonymously from private email from same reader:
What is the danger of spending time in garage of residence? Sister had me sleep in garage, ironically, as she was worried I'd introduce a new odor to her home, and -she- is chemically-sensitive.
Had my CPAP machine on a box 8-10 inches off concrete floor. Had my 1 liter of prescribed oxygen hooked-up to my CPAP. Was "sleeping" (trying to sleep) near adjoining wall to apt, i.e., in front of car. After 45 minutes, opened garage door (big door). Not much wind. Left after 3 hour total.
Body told me to leave when I was just setting up. Was there because my apt has new tenant under me smoking a lot at night, and trying to avoid. Ultimately, went back to -my- apt.
If vehicles were left running such that exhaust accumulated in an area where you were staying the risk could include fatal carbon monoxide poisoning.
Oil or fuel spills, leaks or odors from vehicles is equipment, other unidentified substances stored in the space, other hazards identifiable by visual inspection, testing, or study if building history, dust, or chemical or gas tests, could be present in a garage.
As you were there only a short time, don't report obvious sources of carbon monoxide (CO) dangers, nor other obvious hazards, unless your doctor finds an environmentally related illness or complaint, and absence symptoms or evidence of hazards like those for which I gave examples, there is no clear evidence of actual hazard exposure. Only if your doctor advised otherwise would it make economic sense to investigate further - a step that would require help from an environmental professional or an industrial hygienist who is familiar with residential hazard investigations.
Reader follow-up, edited for taste
Thanks ,... What … I have to be thankful for this Thanksgiving, huh ? What is more toxic, the benzene in second hand smoke, or, the benzene in car emission residuals, like that found in a garage. ... I just learned that benzene is in petrol and car materials and fluids. I expected my mom, re: sister, on her irrationally relegating me to the garage. Sister's excuse is, that I might be wearing clothes that have a scent from being washed or dried in washer or drier that others with fragranced detergent have used. I didn't have that, and I know what that is.
I very rarely, if ever have that. So, therefore, we should, just assume that I have that, .that slight detergent smell that may give her a slight, transient headache, and, .put -ME- in the -GARAGE- with the common, standard, known, garage odors, that most people would figure are WAY more toxic than, oh, a laundry detergent smell.
And here I am, .trying to figure out the lesser of two evils - benzene at my apt. - from, cigarette smoke, or, benzene in a residential garage.
… [expletives deleted - Ed.]
Benzene hazards, as with all environmental hazards, depend on the level and duration of exposure and would be the same regardless of why the benzene is present. Variations in individual health, genetics, and history of exposures to various hazards are also factors that physicians use in assessing individual risk from environmental exposure. You are perhaps assuming far more about what your exposure is or was than is suggested by spending a few hours in a garage with no vehicles running.
I have very good news... finally! :) We continued to leave the windows open during the first 3 weeks in November. The odor still lingered, but less so because of the fresh air exchange.
So, feeling somewhat confident that it had dissipated sufficiently to allow a potential buyer to come in, we put the mattresses back in and started to put house back together for sale. Even so, I was still a bit apprehensive that the odor would return as soon as we closed it up.
As I worked inside the house, my husband tackled the lanai outside, which has vinyl windows, screens and an unfinished concrete floor. He used a heavy mixture of clorox on the concrete floor and the house siding to remove any mildew that had built up during the summer.
Incredibly, the solvent odor actually seemed to have disappeared when he was done! We gave it the closed house test for about an hour and it never built up before we left. Any other time, the odor would have been heavy within 10 minutes.
It really appears that the odor had absorbed into the concrete floor in the lanai and was somehow seeping into the house. When I got home that night, I googled "concrete absorbs solvent odors," to see if that was possible.
It actually pulled up your site where you note that it definitely can pick up chemical odors.
[See CONCRETE DUST & ODORS]
I'm not sure if I read that before, but if I did I guess it didn't strike me as a possibility because I was so focused on the inside where I used the polish. Your site is awesome and has so much useful information
I was in shock... lol, but not quite sure whether to trust that it was really gone. We went back to the house the next day to see if it was still clear and it was. This was very fortunate because someone requested to see the house the very next day. The people came in, there was no smell and they bought the house... it was that fast... :) That was about two weeks ago, and we close on Dec. 20th.
I truly believe the odor had permeated the concrete and was seeping into the house all this time. And we had actually put off washing down the lanai all summer so we could work on the odor first... go figure! I have attached some pictures of the house so you can now see what we were dealing with.
I appreciate your guidance and assistance during the past few months. I am so relieved that we can finally put this nightmare to rest. P.O.D 12/09/2013
I am so happy to hear this odor problem has been put to bed. And thanks for the helpful photos. Just to be sure I understand correctly, "Lanai" as you use it refers to the attached porch along one side of your home, right? A couple of questions remain about why the odor is gone and what one might expect in the future.
1. I have had many reports of odors traced to vinyl products - plastic trim, siding, even window screens. Is it possible that the odor cure is actually because of lower temperatures or closing windows between the house and the actual odor source: the outside vinyl?
See VINYL SIDING or WINDOW PLASTIC ODORS for details.
2. Can we figure out why we didn't figure out why the odor was coming from outdoors? - Ed.
... the vinyl siding is a very good possibility also. There is one wall of vinyl siding on the house inside the porch. The screens in the porch are fiberglass and the windows are vinyl. The vinyl siding was washed down with Clorox and water at the same time as the concrete floor when the smell dissipated. My husband did not spray the vinyl windows and screens with Clorox.
Something I don't think I ever mentioned, and is probably an important clue, I used to smell the odor from down the street as we were driving up to the house, whether the vinyl windows in the porch were open or closed. My husband always thought I was imagining it 'cause he couldn't smell it. It's possible it was coming from all the vinyl in the porch. The odor was very heavy inside the porch whenever we walked in.
Inside the house always smelled whether the windows in the house or the porch were open or closed. The concrete floor does not extend under the house, it is just dirt under there. But it must have been seeping into the house somehow. I believe that opening the windows and airing out the house helped over time, but it did not go away until [we] used the Clorox, at which time it virtually disappeared. - P.O.D. 12/9/2013
(Apr 13, 2015) Paul said:
We live in Orlando and on 2011 we moved into this house that was built on 2007. I remember that the smell of the house was like fresh paint or something when it was empty. We also notice that they painted and installed new carped. The house was in the market for almost a year before we moved in.
So since day one we notice this faint plastic, or paint or particle boar sweet smell that doesn’t go away. On hot days when we return from the mall the smell is stronger and it lingers for hours. We have small kids and we are wary that this smell may be dangerous. It’s a two story home, first floor is block and the second is wood with stucco siding. The front of the house faces south and there are a lot of windows on that side. All the windows have windows blinds that look like vinyl or PVC. The air handler is in the second floor
. I tried to locate the source of the odor using paper tissue with aluminum foil taped to the surface. The test patches were on for a couple of days, but I couldn’t find the source of the odor. I am going crazy thinking on what is emitting this odor. I suspect that the paint may be bad but the patch test didn’t smell like at all. The carpet is another suspect but I am not sure. I had tried to contact professionals to help me resolve the problem but all of them only look for mold related stuff. I purchase an air test that comes with a pump and test tube from a website on the UK. The results came with severe levels of VOCs and elevated levels of formaldehyde.
Your TVOC Level is (ng/L): 3600
Light Solvents : Severe
Stoddard solvent; mineral spirits; some paints, varnish, enamels; wax remover; adhesives; automotive products; penetrating oils. Many of these are present in common household products; however, recent renovation or construction will increase these levels. Increase ventilation during and after use of these products. High levels of Gasoline can contribute to the Light Solvents. We suggest that you contact an indoor air quality professional for discussion of the findings in this report and for further recommendations. You may also contact us by email or via the Live Help link on our website.
Paints, Varnishes, and Coatings: Elevated
Typically, VOCs from paints and coatings can linger for several months, sometimes longer. Begin ventilating the home immediately, and locate and dispose of paint cans and related supplies. Consider using low-VOC paints/coatings in the future.
Personal Care Products: Elevated
Personal care products include soap, deodorant, lotions, perfumes, hair coloring supplies, nail care supplies, oral hygiene products, etc. They contain many VOCs that will dissipate if use is discontinued or reduced. Consider storing these products in a tight fitting container when not in use, and dispose of unused products. Also, run an exhaust fan or open a window when dispensing these products. An elevated level could mean an excessive amount of nail care products or astringents.
Formaldehyde Concentration: 100 ng/L (80 ppb)
Since the test, I moved all the chemical substances from the first floor garage to and outside storage. I haven’t repeated the test since because is a little expensive but I am trying to determine what to do next since the smell is still there.
Should I repaint the interior or replace the carped?
An immediate step that should help would be to increase the level of fresh air ventilation in the home. As you live in an air-conditioning climate, look into an air to air heat exchanger system so you don't blow your AC costs too high.
If your family report illness symptoms, in addition to speaking with your doctor about it you may want to consult a certified industrial hygienist.
More reader questions & answers about dealing with plastic or chemical smells and odors in buildings are at FAQs for this article.
This discussion has moved to WINDOW OFFGASSING ODOR COMPLAINTS, FIBERGLASS & VINYL - separate article.
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