What could a sudden strange chemical smell be?
February 17, 2009 11:02 AM   Subscribe

A sudden, strong, strange chemical smell in the house. What could it be? And how might we find out?

Asking for a friend: Last night when he got home, there was a very strong chemical smell in the house. He described it as like silicon-caulk, or maybe spot remover. It's somewhat stronger in one room, but there's nothing in there that seems to be putting out the smell.

No one else lives there, so it's not caused by someone else. It's a freestanding house, and there's no smell detectable outside the house. There was no smell the day before. The heating system is hot water/radiator, so there are no ducts or vents. 

He checked all the radiators - there was nothing touching them that could be melting or giving off this kind of smell. He checked all the outlets and electronics for shorts or overheating. There's a radon mitigation system in the crawlspace under half the house, but there was no smell in the crawlspace or the adjoining basement. There's been a lot of work going on in the manholes in the neighborhood and immediate area, but this odor is definitely not sewer gas (we don't know what kind of work they're doing).

The smell was bad enough that he wasn't comfortable staying there, and he's not much of an alarmist. It was still there this morning.

Any ideas of what the smell might be? Or, what kind of professional he'd call to find out?
posted by still_wears_a_hat to Home & Garden (8 answers total)
In most cities, the local fire department will come out and do a safety inspection for free. At least they could help him eliminate some possibilities like the electrical or heating systems.
posted by amyms at 11:14 AM on February 17, 2009

Does he have a dishwasher? Once a plastic container got a little melty on the heating element in our dishwasher and the smell was alarming, to say the least.

Seconding the fire department. They're more than happy to help.
posted by cooker girl at 11:44 AM on February 17, 2009

Off the top of my head, I would consider checking to make sure there hasn't been a freon leak...which smells sort of like acetone (nail polish remover).

Alternately, when you say it's radiator type heat, if you mean the kind that has pipes under the flooring that warm the floors, there may be a leak which has caused mold. Mold can produce trichothecene, aflatoxin and ochratoxin, amongst others. A mold smell will be more noticeable when the temperature is warmer, or when hot water passes over the leak area.

As well, if someone puts a light bulb in a socket where the light bulb is higher than the socket; i.e., a 75 watt bulb in a rated 40 watt fixture, you'll get a weird "plastic burning" smell after the light has been left on for a period. (It's also insanely unsafe and likely to cause a fire.) This is mostly true if the sockets are not porcelain sockets. Plastic sockets are the likely culprit in a light bulb related smell.

InspectApedia has a checklist for diagnosing chemical smells that may be of some help.
posted by dejah420 at 11:47 AM on February 17, 2009 [1 favorite]

Does he (or the person who owns the building) have a contract with a pest exterminator?

Exterminators usually have keys, just walk in once every couple of months, and spray for pests/insects and then are gone.

The smell those chemicals leaves behind reminds me of silicon-caulk.

It would be stronger in one room over another because there are certain rooms where the exterminator will make sure to spray extra well.
posted by elpiconeroalcognac at 11:56 AM on February 17, 2009

The silicone caulk I am most familiar with has a strong vinegar (acetic acid) smell, but I wouldn't liken that to spot remover.

Calling the fire department might not be a bad idea. If I were in your friend's shoes, I would open up some windows and use a fan or two to air the place out, then, close everything back up and see if I could identify where the smell is comming from.
posted by Kid Charlemagne at 2:47 PM on February 17, 2009

My DirecTv receiver and/or Xbox started smelling strong not too long ago. It wasn't overheating that I could tell, but something was definitely wrong with the wiring to make them start smelling that way. I removed both of the things, took them outside, and the room smelled better in just a few minutes. Tell your friend to double check the electronics in the room. Unplugging them alone may not solve the problem - they may have to remove the items in order to remove the smell.
posted by cloudsandstars at 5:28 PM on February 17, 2009

Long shot, but we once had a lawn mower start leaking gas and oil in the garage, and the smell made its way into the house.
posted by forthright at 7:14 PM on February 17, 2009

Thanks, everyone. The sewer guys were out again late yesterday, so he was able to talk to them and found out that they were lining the sewers with some kind of resin. There's a manhole in his driveway (I don't know why) that the room that smelled the most is the closest room too, so we're going to assume the sewer resin unless something else happens. But we'll keep the rest of the suggestions in mind too.
posted by still_wears_a_hat at 12:25 PM on February 18, 2009

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