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ODORS GASES SMELLS, DIAGNOSIS & CURE
AIR POLLUTANTS, COMMON INDOOR
AIR QUALITY IMPROVEMENT STRATEGIES
BOOK MOLD, Moldy Book Cleaning
CAR MOLD CONTAMINATION
CAT DANDER in buildings
CHEMICAL CONTAMINANTS in WATER
CHLORINE IN DRINKING WATER
COMBUSTION GASES & PARTICLE HAZARDS
DIRT FLOOR MOLD CONTAMINATION
DUCT SYSTEM & DUCT DEFECTS
EMERGENCY RESPONSE, IAQ, GAS, MOLD
Fireplaces & Woodstove Contaminants
FLOOD DAMAGE ASSESSMENT, SAFETY & CLEANUP
GASES, EXPOSURE, TESTING
GAS DETECTION INSTRUMENTS
GAS EXPOSURE LIMITS & STANDARDS
GLUES ADHESIVES, EXTERIOR CONSTRUCTION
HEATING OIL EXPOSURE HAZARDS, LIMITS
INDOOR AIR HAZARDS TABLE
INDOOR AIR QUALITY & HOUSE TIGHTNESS
INDOOR AIR QUALITY IMPROVEMENT GUIDE
LIGHT, GUIDE to FORENSIC USE
LP & Natural Gas Safety Hazards
METHANE GAS SOURCES
MILDEW in BUILDINGS ?
MOISTURE CONTROL in BUILDINGS
MOLD ACTION GUIDE - WHAT TO DO ABOUT MOLD
MOTHS, MOTHBALL ODORS
MSDS Material Safety Data Sheets
MVOCs & MOLDY MUSTY ODORS
ODORS GASES SMELLS, DIAGNOSIS & CURE
OIL, HEATING, EXPOSURE HAZARDS, LIMITS
OIL HEAT ODORS
OIL TANK LEAK ODORS
OUTHOUSES & LATRINES
OZONE for MOLD OR ODORS
PET ALLERGENS / PET DANDER
PET STAINS on FLOORS
PET STAINS on WALLS
SEPTIC SYSTEM ODORS
SEPTIC TREATMENTS & CHEMICALS
STAINS on & in BUILDINGS, CAUSES & CURES
STAIN DIAGNOSIS on BUILDING EXTERIORS
STAIN DIAGNOSIS on BUILDING INTERIORS
THERMAL IMAGING MOLD SCANS
Urea Formaldehyde Foam Insulation UFFI
URETHANE FOAM Deterioration, Outgassing
VENTILATION in BUILDINGS
VINYL CHLORIDE HEALTH INFO
VINYL Siding or PLASTIC Window ODORS
WATER TEST CHOICES & WATER TEST FEES
WATER TREATMENT EQUIPMENT CHOICES
These articles explain how to diagnose, test, identify, and cure or remove a wide range of obnoxious or even toxic odors in buildings, in building air, in building materials, or in the building water supply. We discuss odors from a variety of sources including animals including pets, dogs, cats, or unwanted animals or dead animals, formaldehyde odors in buildings from building products or furnishings, plumbing drains, plastic or vinyl odors from building products, flue gases, indoor mold odors, oil tanks or oil spills, pesticides, septic odors, sewer gases, and even abandoned chemicals at properties. Our page top photo shows our local skunk rummaging on a nearby golf course. This is about as close as you want to be, especially if you see a skunk meandfering in daylight. This skunk was found dead two days after this photo was taken, most likely due to rabies. .
Green links show where you are. © Copyright 2013 InspectAPedia.com, All Rights Reserved. Author Daniel Friedman.
Building Odor Guide: How to Find, Test, & Remove Odors, Odor Detection and Methods to Remove Smells, & Gases in Buildings
Readers should also see our ODOR DIAGNOSIS CHECKLIST, PROCEDURE for a quick check that can help identify the source of smells in buildings and see SMELL PATCH TEST to Track Down Odors. For smells or odors in New Orleans, possibly associated with the 2010 Gulf Oil Spill, readers can use the odor diagnosis advice hear to distinguish between gulf oil spill odors and other building odor sources. Readers should also see Gulf Oil Spill & Air Quality.
The photo at page top shows steel chemical drums that we discovered on a residential property during a home inspection. Not only did these steel drums raise a question of possible environmental contamination of this site, even worse, they were uphill and close to a stream, raising a still more broad question of area contamination.
At left the author demonstrates a smell-patch test that can be used to track down odors to their source in buildings.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs) about tracking down and curing odors in buildings
Question: Odor Traced to HVAC Condensate Pump
[We] had a very bad smell in basement some days worse than others changed seal on toilet at the top basement steps re caulked the lead seals on the two cast iron stacks . The days we washed clothes [the smell] seemed worse so we washed one day and didn't dry until the next day. When we ran the dryer the smell really was bad.
So I got on the floor started smelling every thing I could find. I finally got by furnace and got close condensate pump [on the floor next to] the air handler [heating and air conditioning equipment]. And there it was [the source of the horrible odor].
I had installed [the condensate pump] about five years ago and I had never cleaned it. What a mistake. I [removed and thoroughly cleaned the condensate pump] AND NO MORE SMELLS! - Gene Lovasz
Comment: Odors coming from dirty condensate pump reservoir
Thanks Gene for pointing out that a dirty condensate pump can be a source of unexpected odors and smells.
I suppose that on an HVAC system whose condensate pump runs only seasonally, water left in the pump body may support both algae and bacterial growth that could smell horrible. Cleaning the pump with household cleaner or even a dilute bleach solution was a smart step. I'd take a look at the condensate pump tubing as well; sometimes crud can collect in a low spot in the plastic drain tubing that ultimately blocks drainage.
Question: Chemical odors, air fresheners, ozone, secondary air pollutant hazards: I can't pin down the source of a chemical odor in my house. Any suggestions?
I was just looking at your web site hoping to find some answers for my problem and didn't really see what I was looking for. I'm hoping you can make a suggestion or point me in the right direction.
I've been chasing an odor around my house for almost a year now and can't seem to pin it down. What it is or where it is coming from.
I've had a plumber come to my house, HVAC person, local gas company, city sewer people, and talked to a "mold" guy although I didn't have him come to my house. I bought my house new eight years ago and it's only 1100 sq. ft. and I don't find any evidence of water damage that would precipitate a mold situation.
The smell has a chemical nature to it that I think is now starting to cause some health concerns for me. Since I've pretty much weeded out all of the obvious things about all that is left is....my next door neighbor cooking drugs of some type. I've filed several reports with the local police department and done several other things as well. Law enforcement may or may not be investigating the situation. They don't really say anything one way or the other.
It seems to me that I need some way to determine exactly what the odor in my house is; but I don't know how to go about it. Everyone that I've spoken to can check for things like sewer gas or mold spores but trying to ferret out the ingredients that might be used for cooking drugs is a whole different ball game. Not really that easy as far as I can tell. I've seen some electronic equipment on-line that is for sampling for residue inside houses where drugs have been cooked but that's like a first-hand situation. My situation is more like a second-hand smoke deal.
Please let me know if you have any suggestions. I'm pretty desperate at this point. - R.E.
I have an office attached to my home which is outgassing from an unknown source. Possible culprits are formaldehyde from an air freshener concentrate spill or perhaps hard foam ceiling insulation. Any suggestions on how to identify the nature of the gas and what to do about it - Lawrence Jackson 3/28/12
Reply: Visual inspection of materials and building condition and a series of smell patch tests might help; secondary air pollutants from air fresheners & ozone generators
Since tests to capture a gas and then identify it can be costly to arrange, it makes sense first to trace the odor to its source - often what you see there will be diagnostic. But I and experts agree that an indoor "air freshener" (such as the plug-in type) can in fact be a source of secondary pollutants, and we agree that some indoor air fresheners include a small amount of formaldehyde, typically 0.1%, to keep the air freshener from growing organisms. Also see Ozone Warnings - Use of Ozone as a "mold" remedy is ineffective and may be dangerous.
Too often an air freshener is not really removing anything from the air to make it more "fresh" - rather it is adding chemicals that cover up the original odor (leaving it in place) and/or chemicals that deaden your sense of smell so you just don't notice the original odor. These concerns for secondary air pollutants can be even more severe if people try using ozone generators in the same location. 
A competent onsite inspection by an expert usually finds additional clues that help accurately diagnose a problem and in this particular case s/he might quickly spot something known to be a common source of problem odors but that had remained unfamiliar to you and some of the others who've looked. With no specific information about your building, I can only suggest a general approach to tracking down the odor problem.
That said, here are some things to consider:
Separate probable emergencies from other odor problems
Of course some odors are widely recognized by many people and some of these (fuel gas odors, methane, sewer gases, even flue gases) can be indicators of very dangerous conditions that need prompt action.
Sophisticated tests to identify gases and chemicals in buildings
There are gas testing methods that can identify the chemical constituents of gases (or in other words odors) found in buildings and elsewhere using a combination of a vacuum canister to collect air samples and mass spectrometry and similar instruments. Industrial hygienists are equipped and familiar with these procedures, but I'd be careful: most of the hygienists in my association (AIHA) are industrial experts and only a smaller number are familiar with residential buildings and with the building science needed to understand and diagnose and cure odors in residential homes.
But for other smells in general I am reluctant to order gas and chemical tests to "identify" an odor for several reasons
An odor or smell may be the mix of a number of chemicals produced by a particular building product or condition. Identifying the specific chemical constituents of the gas often fails to point to the actual source in a building.
I have found inconsistent results from test labs and on occasion even large expensive labs have returned poorly-developed and unreliable results. It seemed to depend on luck of the draw about which technician and supervisor actually handled the work.
A chemical signature that identifies odor components might suggest a direction of investigation but equally frequently in my experience tests of air or gases in buildings are not sufficiently diagnostic. The results may confirm an odor while taking very limited or no steps at all towards identifying the odor source and no steps whatsoever in guiding the building owner into a plan of action.
These tests tend to be specific in target and expensive in use.
Suggestions for tracking down smells in residential buildings
I have had best results in tracking down and eliminating odor problems in buildings by using various measures to pinpoint the actual physical odor source. When the source is recognized we usually will know quickly just what the material is or just why the odor is occurring.
There are other helpful variables to consider that also help track down an odor source such as the correlation of odors to weather, wind, moisture, temperature, sunlight, sun exposure to different building areas, time of day, operation of various equipment etc.
For sources more far afield it's sometimes important to make sure that the odor is originating inside the building not elsewhere.
For odor complaints that are not observed by everyone in the building, because individual sensitivity to odors and chemicals can vary widely I don't assume that the "non-smellers" are correct (that there is no problem) but I have encountered cases in which a medical or even neurological condition was involved.
Help in tracking down an odor source based on building conditions: ODOR DIAGNOSIS CHECKLIST, PROCEDURE provides a checklist of places to look and things to do to track down the source of an odor or smell in building air, water, mechanical systems, heating, cooling, or other locations.
Help in tracking down an odor source based on actual strength of the smell:
Above and in a series of articles found beginning at ODORS GASES SMELLS, DIAGNOSIS & CURE we provider a collection of articles that describe steps to track down an odor to its source and to correct the problem, and there we include a suggested SMELL PATCH TEST to Track Down Odors that might help track down odors.
Use a combination of people with a good sense of smell and the smell test to see if you can identify where, when, and under what conditions the problem odors are strongest.
Question: Sweet / Fume type smell in a two story house
For the past three weeks my father has had a sweet/fume type smell in his two story house. The odor is concentrated in his bedroom. Professionals have come out to clean the air vent/ducts, the carpet cleaned, home inspector etc. and have not been able to determine the source of the odor. He has open all the windows, run the heat any and everything suggested nothing has worked. He has had to throw furniture, bedding etc. away because of the odor. The odor has gotten so bad he is unable to live in the house.
The service people who have been to the house have no clue and also aren't able to direct us how to determine what the problem is and how to fix it. Environmental companies said they need to know specifically what they are testing for such as mold etc. There is no construction going on in the area. He is at his wits end. He lives in Houston, TX. Any assistance anyone can provide would be greatly appreciated. - T. Wilson 8/7/11
Reply: distinguish between sweet fumes and mold odors
Please see Six Steps in an Organized Approach to Finding & Curing an Indoor Chemical Odor below in this FAQ section.
Question: Burning or Electrical Heater Odors: tracking down a burning smell when the air conditioning is on
For the past 3-4 months, some of our employees are complaining about a burning smell ( like the smell when you turn on the heater after a very long time) in the building when the air conditioning is on. I had a couple of HVAC companies come and check out our system but they couldn't find anything wrong. Any ideas? - Fieldpiece 9/12/11
Question: Mold or dead animal smells: smell in the master bedroom closet lingers even after some demolition; attic mold is supposedly "dormant"
I hope you can help me . We have a 7 year old home and we have a smell in the master bedroom and master closet. Both are on the same wall (south)we have a real bad odor that we have never encountered before.
We tore out the carpet with no good results. We have mold in the attic above attached garage but not close to where the smell is. We were told this is dormant? dead? and not the cause of our odor problem.
I have put the smell patch on three walls and also put plastic insulation on the windows - Pat--Boo20@att.net
Reply: dead mold may not be; other places to look for mold as an odor source
I would not assume that "dead mold" is really "dead" - dormant mold, meaning mold growth on a surface that is not producing active growth, can become active seasonally with variations in humidity, temperature, light, and other conditions, and can outgas MVOCs at times - depending on the genera, species, and surface on which the mold is growing. Also the fact that someone saw a significant mold reservoir in one building location should make us alert for the possibility of other undiscovered leaks and reservoirs to be found.
Take a look at MOLD EXPERT, WHEN TO HIRE to see if it seems justified to bring in an expert.Also see Looking for Mold Procedure: what mold is often found where in buildings - simple technical presentation
Question: Plastic or chemical odors: awful odor coming from a new sliding screen door; washed, hosed down, odors continue; chemical smells only when the windows are open?
Help! Just installed a new screen sliding door and the smell is awful! Sprayed it with Simple Green and hosed it down and the "plastic" odor is still not tolerable. Any suggestions?We just installed a new plastic/vinyl screen door and the smell from it is unbearable. We tried spraying it with Simple Green but it didn't help and the smell is overpowering now. What can we do to get rid of this stink other than returning the door? - Ruth 10/24/11 [paraphrased - Ed.]
New construction home (1yr), has a gas like/chemical smell that collects in certain areas of the house only when the windows are open ??? Pretty sure it's not natural gas. When we close windows it goes away.
There is a very strong smell that comes from the corner of our sunroom as soon as it warms up. I think it is stronger when it rains. It's never there during winter. It is so strong you can smell it in the living room. My husband took off the siding and found no mold. I think it smells kinda like mold though. It is so strong it gives me a headache. How can I find out what it is and how to get rid of it? - Jennifer 3/27/12
Reply: check for plastic window or screen odors when some products are heated by sunlight
Ruth & Jason & Jennifer
Some plastic windows or window or door screens can exude a chemical odor, particularly when heated by the sun. You can often track down this chemical-like odor by observing that odors are strongest on the sunlit side of the home and during time when sun is cooking those surfaces.
Some plastic and vinyl building products including windows, doors, and some sidings and trim, outgas a plastic-like odor, especially when new, and in some cases even when not new. But most of these odors dissipate pretty quickly over just a few weeks, and faster if the item, such as your new screen door are exposed to warmth of sunlight.
Details are at VINYL Siding or PLASTIC Window ODORS in Buildings.
Question: Animal or pet feces or urine odors: tracking down a rancid sweet wet paint odor in one room - suspected pet odors from urine or feces
What could be the source of an odor that smells like rancid, sweet, wet paint? The smell is contained to one room of our house, it builds up when doors and windows are closed, is all the time and we can't pinpoint exactly where in the room. We moved in 4 months ago, and it smelled.
We thought it was wet paint (previous owners painted) even after weeks and weeks and no other room (that was painted) smelled. We wound up gutting the walls down to the studs, replaced insulation, drywalled, and painted. It smelled like fresh wet paint, and when that dried we were back to the same offensive odor. We've tested for mold with an IH, tests were negative. Please help!!!
We are desperate, it's my youngest daughters room and she has been sleeping in her sister's room until we can figure this out! Thank you. Wendy K. 11/6/11
Unbelievable Wendy but we seem to have the same thing going on in one small area of our house, a slightly sweet paint, disinfectant or perfume smell. We aren't sure which. (We moved in 12 months ago and have looked behind the walls in the soffits and in the adjacent crawlspace and found nothing.) We have been ventilating the entire time but the smell is still there when we close the room up today. I am going to do the patch test next week. - Chris 11/18/11
Hey Chris, did the patch test help you identify anything yet? Did the previous owner have pets? Ours had a big dog and after all our attempts, we are down to the floor. We are thinking (hoping) it just might be an abundance of dog urine that soaked through the wood floor. My husband found a product at PETCO that addresses this, something specific for dog urine removal. It is kind of perfume itself but we doused the floor twice and are crossing our fingers. Good luck! - Wendy 11/28/11
We had a dog defecating and peeing and leaving it on cement in garage and tile in basement entry, so it's not discovering the cause but curing it. One door frame and the door (as its' a set) was affected and will need to be replaced- but can the floors be cured of the odor? A company that was supposed to take away that smell came and failed to do so. I heard that putting pet product liquids for pet waste is another way to work on it. What would you recommend? - Elaine 3/8/12
Reply: pet odors in buildings and success with removing them: clean & seal surfaces or remove materials
Chris & Wendy:
Our experience is that dog urine can soak deeply into wood flooring, especially if the floor was covered by carpeting and the urine thus remained for a long time. Odors from dog feces are usually easier to cure if the feces were on a hard finished surface, but feces dropped on concrete (a garage floor) or tile (grout joints) can leave oils and fluids that soak into those surfaces.
While commercial deodorizers can reduce the complaint, and some enzymes can actually break down organic molecules that are part of an odor problem, it's often the case that sanding, re-finishing, sealing, or even flooring or drywall and trim replacement are needed.
Where a surface is to be left in place, such as a garage floor, try using a commercial concrete or tile cleaner followed by thorough rinsing (vacuum up the rinse water if it's in a basement or garage that can't be hosed to outdoors. Then when the surface has thoroughly dried, if odors remain you may need to try coating the floor with a sealant. Some of the fungicidal sealants used in mold remediation or odor-controlling sealants used in response to fire damage in buildings can cure the remaining problem.
Details about tracking down & removing animal odors (or human odors) in or on buildings are at ANIMAL ODORS IN BUILDINGS.
Details about sealants for these applications are at FUNGICIDAL SPRAY & SEALANT USE GUIDE.
Question: dead fish (dead animal? odors in the kitchen
There is an odor in my kitchen that is likely a dead small something. I have looked behind refrigerator and stove, and removed anything that can be looked under. But there are floors under cabinets that would require carpentry to remove the shelf....want to know that that is the spot before I begin. How can I identify the location of the odor? Is there any gadget for that? - Jane
Reply: try a borescope before destroying cabinets or walls
I'm not sure it'll work in this case, Jane, but try our
I'd see if the odor can be traced to a drain line.
Also, look for a dead mouse or other dead animal under an appliance (fridge, dishwasher), or under a cabinet, or even in the walls;
Finally, you may find a local home inspector who has a flexible borescope that can peer into tight areas such as under cabinets either by snaking the scope through an existing gap or opening or by drilling a small unobtrusive hole such as i the top of kick plates below your cabinets or in walls where odors seem strongest. An example of using a borescope is provided at HIDDEN MOLD, HOW TO FIND.
Question: Chemical or Paint Odors: strong odor when heating furnace first kicks on, before the blower operates
We are experiencing a strong, very troublesome odor when our furnace first kicks on, before the fan begins blowing. The furnace company has come out several times and they are satisfied that it is NOT the furnace. They thought perhaps it could be in the ducts. We had them vacuumed today, but to no avail.
The smell, if anything, is getting worse. We first noticed a similar problem last year, but it is much worse this year, and coincidently? we noticed it strongly right after painting our basement with "Painter's Select Porch and Floor Coating." We painted it on Oct 10th of this year. We were fixing the house up to sell, and wanted to brighten up the basement, and put up a moisture seal on the field stone walls. It was painted when we moved into the house in 2005, and the paint had peeled off, probably due to moisture leaking through the field stone.
Before painting, we had it "pointed" in areas that clearly needing re-mortaring. The paint we used was supposedly a low-odor paint, good for poorly ventilated areas, and indeed, the basement does not seem to have a particularly strong smell.
But, when the furnace (oil) burner kicks on, about 1 minute later, a powerful odor wafts up out of all of the vents, which our furnace people think is a paint smell, and not an oil smell. It seems much stronger than just paint though, and is truly disturbing.
Susan, you are quite right to focus on the heater start-up cycle when you notice the smell particularly at that time. You didn't mention the heater fuel but I'm guessing it's heating oil not gas. Odors coming from gas heating appliances are particularly dangerous because of the possibility of a chimney, draft, or combustion air problem that can be a telltale for conditions producing potentially fatal carbon monoxide.
If the smell were due to poor venting or a chimney problem or a startup problem with an oil fired heater I'd expect you to recognize the fuel oil odor. Because you think it's a paint-related odor, I too am led to focusing on the prior cleaning and painting history in the home.
But let's ask why that odor would be particularly severe when the heater starts and before the blower turns on. Foundation or stone wall sealants as well as paints (but not likely mortar) often outgas strong odors when new but it would be unusual for such an odor to persist. However if a nearby painted surface were being abnormally heated - say by a hot supply air plenum before the blower comes on to cool down that area in your heating system - that could be a factor.
I think that to get to the bottom of this you want to home in on exactly where you smell the odor (coming from air supply ducts?) in the home, and where the odor appears to be strongest, keeping in mind the possible role of heat from your heating system in increasing outgassing.
Question: musty odor through interior partition wall, worse in damp or rainy weather; high VOCs at kitchen drain; possible sewer gas odors
I have a musty odour coming from the wall that separates my kitchen and living room which worsens when it is damp, rainy, there is no heat on or the AC unit is running. An environmental inspector did an AQ test for mold from the electrical outlet on the living room side, where the odour was quite strong but the results showed very low concentrations of mold spores compared to outside. T
he inspector also used a PPB Rae to measure volatile organic compounds at the kitchen drain which showed extremely elevated levels of VOC's between 35000 to 83000 ppb when initially operating the water. The numbers dropped significantly after the water had been running. The conclusion of the inspector was that plumbing is likely to need repair in the wall cavity and potentially the main trap at the entrance to the building.
Would a camera inspection be able to show if there is a problem in the wall cavity or should the wall be opened up? I have concerns about the latter because of the possibility of contamination from whatever is causing the musty odour. I have smelled sewer gas on at least two occasions, first under the kitchen sink and the second time in the electrical outlet on the living room side. Thanks! - Denise 1/13/12
Recently my neighbor has done some extreme excavating, removing two home and making a parking lot. I have at times noticed an extremely awful smell in my basement(rotten sauerkraut), I think it is sewer gases, but how do i check. City sewer line I am the next to last home on the line. I have had severs head aces nausea, not all the time,I don't have much money for a lot of testing, who do I call? - Beth email@example.com 4/10/12
Watch out: Beth, since you are describing possible damage to and potentially dangerous (explosive) leaks from a public sewer, you should call your city building department promptly to describe the odor, and construction, and worry about what might be a dangerous sewer gas leak.
Denise, running HVAC equipment, fans, or even changes in how windows or doors are open or shut, or changes in indoor or outdoor temperature and similar conditions or changes all affect how air moves in buildings. In cases of enough negative pressure indoors (rising air currents, running exhaust or whole house fans, for example), these can cause backdrafting out of building drains - a condition that is made worse if drains are not properly vented or if the vents are blocked.
I'm not sure what sense it makes to measure VOCs at a building sink drain. I have never measured a sink or tub drain in a building that had seen use that did not cause the instrument to respond - the contents of traps are often a bit smelly on close inspection. On the other hand, dry traps, or traps that are siphoned dry during plumbing system use, or defective or blocked building vent piping can be a serious, even dangerous source of sewer gases. Some odors traced to building walls were in fact traced to openings in a vent piping system in the wall.
Question: dirt floor smells over possible outhouse location
We live on a farm it has a double garage open front dirt floor. on the back is a small area which i think was a old drop hole toilet witch is filled in and open to shed . when you walk past or go in shed there is a very strong smell of sewage . what can be put on the dirt to get rid of smell thanks - Bernie 2/25/12
Reply: use an impermeable membrane below the soil to reduce odors in a shed over an old outhouse pit
Bernie, indeed the soil where an outhouse previously stood can continue to hold concentrations of waste for years because of the concentration of sewage with comparatively low water content, deep in the soil where there is a lack of aerobic bacteria, and probably because often lime was added to control odors, also preserving the waste from bacterial action. Usually, where the soil is open to the air outdoors it's not a source of complaints if it was buried with several feet or more of clean fill.
But in a shed or enclosure odors from gases passing out of the soil may indeed be a problem. I would not try treating the dirt itself with any chemical or deodorant - not only will it probably not work, it may simply be a new contaminant. You might find success by removing a top layer of soil, installing an impermeable membrane (rubber EPDM roofing would work, or a plastic intended for soil burial such as sold by geotextile and foundation waterproofing manufacturers), and burying that layer again with soil.
Question: We tried the obvious, now how can we track down the source of a smell in our home?
The smell tends to be stronger in the hallway area which is on the other side of the wall from the bathroom. My husband does not smell it and thinks I am crazy. Some days is it stronger than others but I can't figure out why. The smell is not in the basement, and not in the attic.
We replaced the toilet wax ring, with no results. We put a vent cap on the roof vent of the toilet so that wind would not blow the gases back inside, with no results.
How can I track down the smell? My only other ideas are that the roof has leaked and the wall has molded, or there is a problem with the bathroom fan leaking in foul air. Or a dead animal stuck somewhere in the wall.
Desperate for some fresh air,- J.H.
See our odor diagnosis procedural checklist at ODOR DIAGNOSIS CHECKLIST, PROCEDUREor review the six-step approach to odor diagnosis described in the FAQ just below.
A competent onsite inspection by an expert usually finds additional clues that help accurately diagnose a problem or source of an odor. That said, It is an error for someone to assume that because they do not personally smell an odor that it is not present. Individual sense of smell varies widely among individuals. However on occasion there are medical or other sources of perceived odors that only the affected person will experience. Therefore in some cases it may be appropriate to also check in with a physician. But it makes sense to look for the obvious: an actual source of odors or smells in the building.
Question: How can we track down the source of a chemical smell in our condo?
I currently own and live in a condo and for several months now my wife and I have noticed a very strong smell in one of our bedrooms. The smell has been strong enough to make it impossible for us to be in that room without the window open and as the smell continued we finally reached out to have the air tested in the bedroom. We found (having tested 3 times) high level of various VOCs, most prevalently 1,4 dichlorobenzene.
Unfortunately, while we've established something is wrong, none of the air testing companies we used could figure out where it was coming from (not really their specialty). We'd hoped the building would get involved and spent months dealing with them but things have become more urgent as my wife is pregnant and due in 2 months.
We can't bring a newborn into this environment and so are looking for someone to help us find the source of the contamination (rather than just confirm that it exists). Is this something you can do? If so (or if not, if you don't mind) please get back to me ASAP. Between waiting too long and the frustration of dealing with various service providers and our own building we are really in a rush to have this resolved. - Anon. 5/31/12
Our suggestions for an organized approach to tracking an odor to its source and correcting the problem are summarized just below:
A competent onsite inspection by an expert usually finds additional clues that help accurately diagnose a problem such as this one. It is a frequent frustration to discuss with readers and clients the common experience of hiring a costly investigator or hygienist to help with a problem only to find that that expert does the easy part - conducting a few (sometimes unreliable) sample collections, sends them to a lab and gives you a report. Such tests alone, without a translation into sufficient diagnosis as to permit action, are of limited use.
Having had my own children and recalling some experiences that are best skipped over, I want to reassure you that while I don't claim the most expertise on this subject, I'll be glad to do what I can to assist. That said, after more than 30 years of field investigations, I have retired from most field work; also I am about to leave the country on a six-month project, so I'm not the best person to sort this out in your home. However I will (pro bono) offer a few suggestions that might be helpful, and I invite you to continue the discussion with me and to let me know how things progress, as that may enable me to be of further use to you and your wife and the baby. Certainly I take your concerns seriously and I'd like to do what I can to assist.
You may have already read that dichlorobenzene is often used in pesticides, mothballs (see Are mothballs an indoor air quality or health concern?) , disinfectants, and deodorants. If you are confident that your tests identifying this chemical were accurate AND that it is most likely the chief or only contaminant present, those uses may help suggest how to track down the actual odor source.
The fact that the odor is traced particularly to one bedroom will be helpful, but depending on what we think has happened in your home, I'd suggest being cautious in concluding that the risks are only in that area. For example, if the odor is due to use of a pesticide, it would more commonly have been applied in multiple areas.
Off the cuff, several directions of investigation suggest themselves:
1. Odor source tracking: try the SMELL PATCH TEST to Track Down Odors method to see if you can isolate the odor to a particular surface. It's cheap, easy, and can sometimes give dramatic results. When I refined and field tested this method, first suggested to me by Jeff May (Cambridge MA), the person we used as the "smeller" was in fact a pregnant woman whose sense of smell was reported to be particularly sensitive.
2. Building and building condition factors causing odors: at ODOR DIAGNOSIS CHECKLIST, PROCEDURE we give a procedural checklist that can help track down the source of an odor by reviewing a laundry-list of types of odors, odor sources, and building and even weather conditions that can be diagnostic. For example we've tracked certain odors to plastic windows or window screens that emitted smells principally after some time in direct sunlight.
Add for your case
3. Building history factors in odor diagnosis: in the same checklist as item 2 I give some examples of building history that can point to a particular odor source. In the case you describe I'd want to add some more detailed considerations such as
building age, type, location, and construction materials of both the structure and in your individual condo
history of condo owners, length of occupancy, and activities in the condo - for example were there occupants with particular hobbies or activities that used chemicals?
history of treatment for insect pests: cockroaches, termites, other - by whom, when, what chemical was applied where and by what method; on Long Island years ago an idiot pesticide applicator sprayed pesticide into the building wall cavities leading to a very costly problem. If, for example, a prior owner filled a closet with mothballs (Are mothballs an indoor air quality or health concern?) and left it shut for a long time - months or years - the odor could have penetrated surface materials and may linger there.
history of renovations in your condo, when, what, where, what materials
4. Surface testing to confirm an odor source: best performed after we have some most-suspect surfaces in mind, it may be possible to collect and send a small physical sample to an appropriate test lab for confirmation of what we're looking at. For example, at a home where I suspected amateur application of pesticide (chlordane), I cut a small sliver of wood that we sent to an independent test lab (my lab specializes in particle forensics not chemicals) who confirmed that the wood had indeed been soaked with pesticide.
5. Containment of odors & smell-related risks: temporarily, I trust that you are keeping the offending room's door shut and are minimizing your wife's exposure to risk. I caution you that anyone who remains in an area where odor-producing substances are present, eventually becomes desensitized to the odors and can be thus fooled into thinking that the odor is not present or has been diminished. A good test is to consider how things "smell" to you or others on entering the condo just after you've spent hours or longer out in fresh air.
6. Remediation of odors or smells: as I infer from your message, and I agree, don't do anything expensive or disruptive towards a "cure" before we have a reasonably confident idea of what the problem is.
Comments or suggestions from other experts or readers are welcome and can be posted in the Q&A/Comment section below.
Here at ODORS GASES SMELLS, DIAGNOSIS & CURE we list many sources of odors & smells in buildings - the list itself may suggest some candidates for you that can help tracking down your own complaint.
Separately at ODOR DIAGNOSIS CHECKLIST, PROCEDURE we offer a procedural checklist that can help in tracking down an odor
Question: desperate for help tracking down chemical drug smells in apartment
I am desperate for your help. On your web page there is mention of neighbors cooking drugs in a section titled "question:chemical odors,air fresheners, ozone,secondary air pollutant hazards; i can't pin down the source of a chemical odor in my house." this is a big problem in the apartments where i live too.
However my sister who is disabled with m.S. Has severe reactions to these smells. She moved from here to a house in a "nice" place. To make it short - her neighbors are probably cooking a drug called spice and the odors are making her extremely ill. (racing heart, nausea, burning eyes etc). The big problem is few people are there in the middle of the night when it happens.
Her aide called me and said she can smell it.
The fire dept and police want her to prove it before they will do anything.
Her landlord thinks she is nuts.
I know her to be on target with all of the terrible drug smells from this place and we tried to get her out of it. If you have any advice or devices please contact me. I am afraid she will end up in the hospital and no one will help her at all. My e-mail is [redacted] i am home in the am and work in the aft. & evening. Thank you for putting this info online. I look forward to talking to someone soon.
Oh i also bought her detectors recommended by the fire dept(riddick- i think) and they go off at 22 which is high and still nothing can be done until we prove something. - M.B.
I'm doubtful that the "detectors" you purchase are suitable for detecting chemical odors or odor sources. Typically the detectors recommended by a fire department will be smoke detectors or carbon monoxide detectors. Both of those are devices that you and family members should have properly installed and working wherever you live, for fire and carbon monoxide hazard safety, but these devoces are not intended for nor useful for tracking down chemical contaminants.
Your other options include
- ask your local health department for help
- hire an expert - if so make sure (by asking) it's someone who actually has expertise and experience in odor diagnosis and cure, not a general-practitioner hygienist or home inspector who may lack that expertise. Something I'd avoid is paying someone to just stop by to perform a specific chemical, gas, or air test - it's too much like shooting in the dark and is at too much risk of giving a false negative result.
Questions & answers or comments about tracking down and curing odors in buildings.
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