What's the strange smell that's causing our cough?
March 7, 2007 7:37 PM   Subscribe

Someone in my apartment building is smoking/making/cooking something that causes my girlfriend, daughter and I to cough. Any idea what it might be and what I could do about it?

It started last summer and for a few weeks there happened every other day. During the winter, it's happened very little but now they're doing it pretty regularly again and it's really badly affecting my four-month-old baby. It's not a constant cough but one that makes you cough very hard every five minutes or so and it makes my nose run. It smells awful and has a bit of a chemical smell to it. It permeates the apartment hallways and is difficult to pinpoint. Any idea what we could do about it?
posted by rez to Health & Fitness (32 answers total) 4 users marked this as a favorite
 
It sounds like meth, from what you're describing. That's bad news.
posted by lilithim at 7:42 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


Why the automatic assumption that it's meth?
posted by melt away at 7:45 PM on March 7, 2007


Talk to your neighbors. See if anyone else has noticed it. Communicate. Do you know who is doing it?
posted by miss lynnster at 7:54 PM on March 7, 2007


It does sound like meth, from the "chemical smell" description. Talking to the neighbours is not a bad idea, if they're approachable. Or you could also just go to your landlord.
posted by routergirl at 7:57 PM on March 7, 2007


Aside from repeatedly calling the landlord / management company / building super every time it happens and lodging complaints, I'm not sure what you can really do about it. Unless you know someone who works at a good chemistry lab and could perform some sort of analysis, and maybe give you some evidence that you could use to claim that the odor is hazardous, I suspect it's going to be a matter of badgering the hell out of some Authority Figure. Unless you can figure out what the odor is, or where / who it's coming from, it's going to be difficult to get anything done about it.

As for mitigating the impact of the smell, you could try sealing your unit up as tightly as possible, and then using a HEPA filter with activated charcoal; that's about the only thing I've ever run into that deals with malodors. (I used to live above some people who used to cook -- and I use that term loosely -- some absolutely horrifying-smelling things. I tend to like almost any kind of ethnic food, but this stuff seriously smelled like putrefying flesh. I never had any luck in getting anything done about it; eventually they moved out. I used to duct tape up my door and open the windows when they got started, and just wear my coat indoors if it happened to be the middle of winter.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 7:58 PM on March 7, 2007


lilithim - That was our first impulse as well, I'm hoping that it's not the case for all of the obvious reasons.

miss lynnster - I haven't spoken to anyone else about it, I don't really know any of the neighbours. It's too late to do it tonight, but I think that the next time that it happens I'm going to call the landlord and make her come up to our place and make her smell it. If it persists, I'm going to make it clear that she will be losing us as tenants.
posted by rez at 7:58 PM on March 7, 2007


I'm not sure what the smell might be, as I'm not in any way qualified to determine such a thing.

However, for "contaminant management", I would recommend a product called Ozium. It's a bacterial air sanitizer, used in many hospitals and clinical settings, and will clear the air of just about anything in the room. The key is that it isn't- like Lysol, for example- a chemical deodorant, but rather an air sanitizer. You may find it useful the next time you smell this- spraying it in the air for 1-2 seconds will clear a room out fast.

You can find it at many retailers, but if you have trouble locating some you might try calling some head shops. It's useful for that sort of thing.
posted by baphomet at 8:02 PM on March 7, 2007


To answer melt away, I grew up in an area with a high concentration of meth labs. (Don't we all, really.) Anytime we ever wanted to describe it, the words 'chemical smell' came front and center. Not 'chemical smell' like weird carrots for darkrooms, a very sharp chemical odor.
posted by lilithim at 8:05 PM on March 7, 2007


In addition to calling your landlord, it would be wise to send (ideally certified) a letter describing the problem and formally requesting a schedule for it to be resolved. Keep sending letters weekly until the issue is resolved.
posted by backupjesus at 8:22 PM on March 7, 2007


A fairly drastic but possibly swift solution to the problem would be to dial 911 and complain of a 'chemical smell'. You would probably have a hazmat team there in short order, and make a point.
posted by sweet mister at 8:27 PM on March 7, 2007


If it's persistent and making you cough AND chemically, I think calling the police (perhaps not 911 directly) would be completely reasonable. They deal with absolute stupid calls regularly; if yours is seriously a meth-type issue, and it will occur long enough that they can observe it, they'll know better than you what the meth is going on.

And dude, nothing like having the apartment below yours asplode. This is what police are for, if you suspect something.
posted by disillusioned at 8:43 PM on March 7, 2007 [1 favorite]


I second calling 911 the next time you smell the odor. Make sure to tell the operator that it's not an immediate emergency but that the smell is pungent and that it's causing you concern. The fire dept. will most probably show up and believe me, they have plenty of experience when it comes to meth labs and the like.
posted by 913 at 8:43 PM on March 7, 2007


Meth labs are a huge fire risk. Use that for justification for calling the police or fire inspector the next time it happens.
posted by Rhomboid at 8:45 PM on March 7, 2007


Not sure about the structure of your emergancy systems, but calling the city council or police (non emergancy) to state that there's a strong chemical smell around. If you're afraid of coming off as stupid if it turns out to be something quite legit, then even an anonymous call.

If a building has been used as a meth lab for a while it can be rendered uninhabitable, and a heath hazard for future tenants, so would pay to get it checked ASAP.
posted by chrisbucks at 8:55 PM on March 7, 2007


The "chemical smell" might dissuade you from this idea, where an Indian family (dots not feathers) down the hall from an old girlfriend's apartment who would pan roast spices on a daily basis and it was akin to tear-gas--coughing, choking, eyes a-watering.
posted by maniactown at 8:57 PM on March 7, 2007


*but* an Indian family down the hall from an old girlfriend's apartment *would* pan roast spices
posted by maniactown at 8:59 PM on March 7, 2007


If you think it might be meth, you can call the cops. You can invite them up to have a sniff, and I'm sure someone there will know what it's supposed to smell like. Obviously no one here is going to be able to tell you if it is from your description ("chemical"?)
posted by delmoi at 9:22 PM on March 7, 2007


Call the fire department or the non-emergency number for your police. Tell them your concerns. Mention the effects on your child. They can at least look into the situation. Meth labs are huge fire and explosives risks. With luck, it will turn out to be something else.
posted by acoutu at 9:22 PM on March 7, 2007


Call the police.

Then come back to this thread and tell us what happened.
posted by jayder at 9:29 PM on March 7, 2007


I roast spices and the smell is pungent but I can't imagine it being described as chemical -- even when I'm roasting hot chili peppers. If the fire department did turn up because a neighbor had complained I'd be amused rather than insulted or angry.

Less so if I was cooking meth, obviously.
posted by sweet mister at 9:46 PM on March 7, 2007


Ozium is good for clearing out the stink. Friends of mine have had good luck finding it in the automotive section of Walmart and at the counter in auto part stores. Dirt cheap too.

If you can, try to isolate where it's coming from (sniffing around various doors and whatnot in public areas) because if you live in a huge place, telling the cops to come look wherever is going to be a major hassle.
posted by sperose at 9:47 PM on March 7, 2007


Frying chilli powder can cause lots of coughing and spluttering, but would be easily identifiable.
posted by sarahw at 10:15 PM on March 7, 2007


Perhaps it is the smell of the technosexual, CK2.0?

But seriously, here's the problem; It's probably not a meth lab. But given you describe it as a "chemical smell", it could be. And if you're smelling a meth lab, it's probably screwing with your lungs so you wan't to find out. If it really is a strong chemical smell, you should definitely contact your landlord. If he/she is unhelpful, consider calling the police and reporting it.
posted by Justinian at 3:22 AM on March 8, 2007


One more vote for calling in the police; you might even be better off to discuss it with them right away so you'll have a contact person when the smell arises next. It's definitely screwing with your lungs, whatever it is, & I hate to think what it could be doing to a baby's lungs.
posted by Laura in Canada at 5:06 AM on March 8, 2007


I was only suggesting that "chemical smell" is a bit vague. There are many chemicals in this world, ya know? Hell, there are many illicit substances besides meth whose processing or smoking leaves a "chemical smell". Saying it was the odor of meth processing just seemed to be jumping the gun based on little information.

I agree with everyone, however, who says to call the authorities. Your family's health is potentially at serious risk.
posted by melt away at 5:25 AM on March 8, 2007


The only other common chemical smell that makes me cough is the oven self-cleaning. It initially smells like burnt food, but as it heats up, just smells nasty, and makes me cough even when the smell is not too bad.

In addition to calling 911 when a chemical smell in your building makes you ill, you should call your landlady every time it happens, and make sure she is aware of the dangers meth would pose to her property. Or crack-smoking, or other causes of chemical smells. If it's really bad, you should leave the building. You generally have the right to reduce your rent when your home is not habitable, but you may want to save that option for severe events.
posted by theora55 at 6:03 AM on March 8, 2007


The general consensus seems to be call the police and landlord the next time that this happens and that seems to be the best plan. I'm generally someone who only calls the authorities as a very last resort, so I think I just needed to hear someone else say it to drum up the motivation to do it. As soon as I smell it next, I'm making the call. (Also picking up some Ozium, just in case).

Thanks everyone!
posted by rez at 7:26 AM on March 8, 2007


If it smells like cat urine, ether, ammonia, or acetone than call the police. If you're wrong, hey, there's no meth-lab in your building and the cops get a good chuckle.
posted by damn dirty ape at 10:14 AM on March 8, 2007


I'm really glad to hear you're calling the cops. You're 100% right to. This is one of the (very rare) situations where going straight to the authorities is the answer, rather than trying to work things out with neighbors.
posted by allterrainbrain at 3:05 PM on March 8, 2007


To clarify: I feel like I can hear in some of the responses here which posters have & haven't lived near a meth lab at some point in their lives. I have and I'm making my comment based on that experience. You're describing the smell of a meth lab just as I would describe it. An awful smell with a chemical feel that comes and goes regularly is something to get outside help with, not approach the neighbors about.
posted by allterrainbrain at 3:18 PM on March 8, 2007


I hadn't even thought of the meth lab. But I've lived close to people who *smoked* meth, and that was precisely how I'd describe that smell.
posted by routergirl at 9:44 AM on March 9, 2007


Rez - if its a meth lab you are probably going to have to leave your apartment. Meth and the process of making it, contaminates a building. There have been numerous instances of meth labs causing a building to uninhabitable. Not to be inflammatory - but you may be living in a superfund site. Definitely *not* a situation that you want a young child exposed to. Figure it out as soon as you can and you may want your spouse and child to go stay with relatives so as not to expose the child.
posted by zia at 6:23 PM on March 9, 2007


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