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Question DetailsAsked on 3/14/2017

Odor in studio apartment above two car garage. Smells of paint or oil, air feels thick. Why, safe, how to remove?

Entrance from outdoor stairs. Studio directly above 2 car garage (detached from main house). Original stairs in garage to the upper floor sealed off with wood. Walking into studio there is a smell of "paint, oil, or varnish." Smell goes away after being in the apartment for several minutes. Often the strength of the smell differs. Electric stove, fridge, and bathroom, oil heating. Assured nothing harmful. C02 detector installed and functioning, has gone off twice yet after inspection, there has not been any applicances to cause a C02 alarm or any C02 dected in the air. Any ideas why there is this lingering odor, is it safe, and how do we get rid of it? Thank you!

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3 Answers



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Answered 3 years ago by Member Services


OK - this does NOT sound safe, not knowing what it is from or how concentrated the fumes are. You said there are no appliances that could trigger a CO alarm - like water heater or furnace in the garage, or possibly in the studio apartment ? Or maybe in main house but the exhaust flue may come up the party wall between house and apartment - or possibly the exhaust flue exits on the roof near to a door or window of the apartment ? Or if high-efficiency unit, exhaust may exit right below door or window and the fumes are being pulled into the apartment by natural house convection, which commonly pulls air into through doors and windows.

(CO2 - Carbon Dioxide - alarms are very rare in other than in industrial applications - undoubtedly yours is CO - Carbon Monoxide, or possibly a combo CO and fire alarm.)

I am assuming you do not have new flooring, new furniture, recently refinished/repainted areas in the apartment, etc. which could be outgassing. If you have not been in this apartment long, or it has been remodeled, smell the cabinets and flooring and trim - common sourcdes for outgassing of volatile solvents for some weeks to months after installation.

Smell strength varying might or might not mean anything - could be because a fuel-fired heater or furnace recently fired up, or because a car was recently put in the garage. Or even that one or more cars has a small fuel leak or is being overfilled so after a fillup it is producing significant fumes, but not when the tank is not full. Most older cars (and some modern ones) with carburetors rather than fuel injection constantly outgas fumes from the carburetor which sitting turned off - so could be coming from there too. Differences in wind direction and speed and air pressure and humidity would also affect how much of any fumes could be getting into your apartment from wherever they are coming from.

When you walk in you smell paint, oil, or varnish - assuming there is no spilled or leaking paint or solvents in the apartment or garage, this could be toluene and benzene from gas in the cars in the garage, or fumes from a diesel. These are constituents of gasoline (and to a letter extent in diesel) and are fairly volatile solvents, so if there are fumes escaping from the car(s), as there usually are from gas tanks (especially in older cars without carbon vapor canisters at the gas filler tube), these vapors could be coming into your apartment through penetrations in the walls or ceilings - including through ceiling light fixtures, wall outlets, wiring penetrations, breaker box, etc. Generally, because the upper floors over garages are almost always warmer the air rises and exits from attic penetrations and windows from the upstairs area, pulling in replacement air from below. In tuck-under garages it is critical that the garage walls and ceilings be absolutely airtight. It could also be garage fumes are coming in through the previous stairs - you could try sealing them off with plastic cloth and tape to see if that makes a difference.

Of course, you could also (at a time when the fumes are strong in the apartment) check in the garage (including high up near the ceiling) to see if there is the same smell there - might help tie down whether or not that is the source.

You say the smell goes away in a few minutes after coming in - that could be because your entry and turning on furnace or A/C or such dilutes the vapors - but more dangerously, it could be due to sensory detuning/acclimatization or desensitization. Sensory detuning or acclimatization is a process whereby your senses get acclimated to a sensory input and "tune it out" - like annoying neighborhood sounds or furnace noises or such that keep you awake the first day or three in a house are quickly tuned out and your senses consider them as background noise, or you initially shiver or feel sweaty in extreme temps but your body adjusts and reduces its response after a few minutes.

Ditto to smells - after a few minutes your nose will tune out most smells. More importantly, with many chemicals like solvent (and benzene and toluene are particularly good at this, along with light paint solvents like xylene, laquer thinner, acetone), they overwhelm and kill off the receptors in the nose, causing your nose to effectively no longer be capable of smelling the vapor until you have been away from it for some time and the receptors recover/ regrow. This is desentization - it can be VERY dangerous because you can be in a hazardous environment but not know it any more because while your nose tells you it is no longer detecting the odor, it has actually overwhelmed the smell receptors so they are not registering but the odor/chemical is still present and possibly hazardous.

Because of this effect, because this odor is a repetitive event, and you say the air "feels thick" which is a common description of desensitization, I would consider to a possible imminent hazard.

Think whether this occurs only when there are cars in the garage - especially if yours (or maybe talking to landlord to help with a test if his cars) park them outside for a day or two and see if it makes a difference - that would eliminate both fuel vapor venting and car exhaust (from driving in/out) as a possible source.

Another possibility - you have vapors leaking into the apartment from the furnace or water heater - either raw oil fumes (which could also be coming from a leaking or overfilled tank or leaking lines from tank to the house - smell around around the tank and around fuel lines into the house), a leak at the furnace, or even an exhaust flue leak on the furnace venting the furnace exhaust into the apartment, because oil furnace exhaust has enough oil residue and soot in it (especially when first firing up) to create quite a strong odor if just a bit leaks out. Smell also at the supply vents (if forced air heating) to see if smell in coming in with the incoming air - which could indicate a fuel leak in the area of the furnace which is pulling vapors in with the supply air, or possibly a leak in the heat exchanger so you are getting some combustion exhaust coming through with the supply air.

Obviously, if not real cold out, turning off the furnace (and water heater if oil fired) entirely would test that as a possible source - though would not eliminate odor from a raw fuel leak somewhere in the system.

One other thing you could do (if this smell persists pretty much every time you come back home) is arrange for a friend or neighbor to go in after it has been closed up for awhile and see if they can identify the smell. Of course, you run the risk that each person will identify it differently, ,but might help - especially if you have a friend/neighbor with paint or auto repair shop or construction experience who might be able to better identify a specific chemical odor.

For testing of the air - most larger fire departments have a handheld combustible/ explosive gas detector, and those with a hazardous materials response unit generally have an OVA (Organic Vapor Analyzer). The first detects combustible gas presence, which would also detect any significant concentration of gasoline or diesel/oil fumes. The OVA detects organic chemical presence. They could also use their much more sensitive Carbon Monoxide detector which would tell you if you are getting significant amounts of furnace (or car) exhaust gases in the apartment. Call their regular phone number (not 911 unless you are feeling direct effects - dizziness, drowziness, respiratory issues - in which case also get out of there till they come) and ask if they can bring their test equipment and check for exhaust fumes or fuel vapors in your apartment.

Commercially - an Environmental Health company (commonly part of a larger hazardous Waste Remediation and Civil Engineering firm). No Angies List category for that - google for Environmental Engineering or Indoor Air Quality / Environmental Health companies in your area.

Ultimate solution if it cannot be identified or tracked down, though probably $1000 range, would be for an environmental health company or environmental lab to collect a sealed air sample and test it in a chemical lab using a GC/MS (Gas Chromatograph/Mass Spectrometer), which separates out the constituents in a gas and identifies each componet and its concentration.

If you arrange for fire department (usually free for that) or an environmental health company to come, you want to avoid entering the apartment for some hours before they come, so you do not have diluted any vapors by opening the entry door.

Since the alarm has gone off, presuming the batteries are good, would lead me to think that the CO alarms were legit, and that a furnace (or water heater unless electric) exhaust leak would be a good first thing to check for.

For a professional inspection of furnace/water heater and fuel system, a Heating and A/C company (your Angies List Search the List category) would be your vendor type - though you said "assured nothing harmful" so you may have already gone that route. Though if so, did they inspect the flue for leaks - rust-through, disconnected pipe, etc ?

Answered 3 years ago by LCD


It is very possible you have exhaust fumes leaking into the upstairs due to negative pressure from your HVAC system. The same thing happened to me. I had the same type of odors. I chased he smell for two years before figuring it out. Using a monitor, I could see that everytime the car was started, the measurements jumped up to high levels. The upstairs was built tight, so the fumes didn't disipate quickly and they just built up. Now, with car out of the garage, the place smells great and the monitor reads at levels that are only a fraction of those previously.

Hope that helps.

Answered 8 months ago by rfl

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