Health (and maybe legal) concerns living with rotten smell?
March 18, 2013 7:02 AM   Subscribe

A little over a week ago, right before everyone left for Spring Break, the fridge in my girlfriend's dorm apartment died and got quickly replaced the same day. Everyone just came back yesterday to the smell of rotten food (lots of meat, especially) because the new fridge had broken shortly after the new one was installed. ResLife replaced the fridge again, but everyone's everything reeks of the smell it was drenched in for the week. (more inside)

They're OK with managing the smell. The college's laundry is working overtime while everyone's things are cleaned, febreze is in abundance, baking soda is being vacuumed into the carpets, and windows are cracked open despite the 40 degree temperatures.

My (and their) concern is with living and breathing this honestly terrible smell over the coming weeks. Are their health problems that can develop with inhaling the smell for days on end? Should they wear surgical masks MJ-style to prevent anything airborne? My girlfriend has a fairly sensitive respiratory system and she's ready git a sore throat.

Also, are there any legal concerns or otherwise? The school seems pretty disinterested in helping them get rid of the smell; all the products to mask and remove it are coming from their (and my) pockets. The school hasn't offered to temporarily move them to a free apartment (there are several on campus; they've recently expanded) or to fumigate or hire professional services. Oddly, there were no RAs or other ResLife or campus staff monitoring the dorms, despite indications that RAs are usually required to be in residence for Spring Break.

TL;DR - Is living/breathing the smell of rotten food/meat for weeks on end dangerous/unhealthy? Any preventative measures to take? To what extent is school responsible for managing it?

posted by Angulimala to Health & Fitness (14 answers total)
Have they *asked* to be moved into a free apartment? It sounds very unpleasant but a bad smell is not going to make them sick.
posted by mskyle at 7:05 AM on March 18, 2013

I don't think there's any health concerns with the smell, as long as the mold spores are gone.

Freshly roasted coffee beans are your friends here. Put piles of them all over the place. Also, if you can get your hands on some Citrus Magic, your girlfriend and her roommates will be very happy.
posted by cooker girl at 7:06 AM on March 18, 2013 [4 favorites]

They only came back yesterday?

I'm not sure why you're convinced that the terrible smell is going to persist for 'weeks on end'. There's every chance it'll be greatly diminished by the end of the week, and all but gone in a fortnight. You seem to be catastrophizing just a little.
posted by Salamander at 7:11 AM on March 18, 2013 [5 favorites]

Boil coffee beans, round the clock.
posted by oceanjesse at 7:11 AM on March 18, 2013

I've had this exact problem twice -- once with meat, once with a really bad cheese-related incident -- and a few more times with... let's just say the unwanted results of excessive partying.

First, there's no risk to them. Our reaction to the smell of rotting meat is to warn us not to eat it, not to warn us to flee it.

Second, the smell probably isn't as baked-in to things as you think. Ventilation will get rid of 99 percent of it; one round of laundry and some counter-smells will get rid of the rest (and put something in place of the smell so your brains won't fill it in automatically). Don't just crack the windows. Throw them all open, to get cross-ventilation and a breeze moving through the place -- if windows are only on one side of the apartment, open the door and any hallway windows you can to get that breeze going. Turn off the heater or it'll go nuts. Do this before everyone goes to class, and the smell will be gone by the end of the day. Yes, the apartment will be freezing when you get back, but it will only take an hour or so to warm back up once you've closed the windows and got the heat going again.
posted by Etrigan at 7:25 AM on March 18, 2013 [8 favorites]

This happens to people all the time. Power goes out, fridges go bad, stink happens. It's just a fact of life when you have a refrigerator. I don't think there is anything illegal about the fridge accidentally dying over Spring Break. It was an accident, and it sucks. Screws fall out all the time, the world is an imperfect place.

As for the smell, clean the fuck out of that fridge (if you still have it). Open the windows. Like coffee grounds, another trick (used by people who are showing their houses) it to bring a pot of cinnamon-sprinkled water to a boil on the stove. Simmer for hours, house smells homey.
posted by Elly Vortex at 8:26 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Also, open lots of small boxes of baking soda and put them in the fridge.
posted by oceanjesse at 8:36 AM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Nothing worse than coming home to a fridge full of SURPRISE! spoiled food. I agree with Etrigan about pretty mch everything. Remove the offenders and the offensive smell will dissipate right quick.

More concerning to me is the new fridge also breaking down so fast,though. Make sure Residential Services checks into why the new fridge failed, too. Your gf could have a short somewhere.

I've had something similar happen, and it wasn't the fridge that was the problem, but the power, and it wasn't easy to diagnose the problem.

What happened was our fridge shut off a couple times, and we figured it was dying. But we'd discover that the breaker had flipped off, and once we cleaned up and turned on the breaker again, the fridge worked fine. After a while, it shut off unexpectedly again.

It turned out that the electrical current was not constant the way it should have been. I doubt I am explaining this well, but slight shifts in the electrical current (sort of like during a brown out) led to temperature fluctuations in the fridge. The ice would partially melt, we'd end up with water under the fridge, and the breaker would flip to prevent a short. The fridge wasn't the problem, just a symptom of an electrical issue.
posted by misha at 8:36 AM on March 18, 2013

The smell is putrescine from rotting meat. Basically, anything that will clear up skunk stink will help you out.
posted by srboisvert at 9:06 AM on March 18, 2013

If the fire-alarms aren't overly sensitive, try lighting some candles.
posted by veids at 11:11 AM on March 18, 2013

Wipe vanilla extract on the walls. This helped remove the smell from a fridge that went dead over Thanksgiving weekend, or at least ameliorated the smell. I imagine it will help with dorm rooms as well.
posted by Addlepated at 12:29 PM on March 18, 2013

Don't do coffee if you like coffee. We tried to get the stink out of a Katrina-stank fridge with coffee and all it succeeded in doing was making me associate the smell of coffee with rotten refrigerator for a couple of years. It'll go away in a couple of days. Were you there when they replaced the fridge? If not, maybe there were some drips that they stuck the new fridge on top of.
posted by artychoke at 12:38 PM on March 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

The mighty UFYH recommends boiling a pan of vinegar and citrus on the stove to get rid of lingering stink.
posted by Space Kitty at 5:21 PM on March 18, 2013

I remember hearing from someone that the first thing those dead body cleanup companies do is burn a pot of coffee(As in, the companies landlords call in when someone dies and rots in their apartment). It's not just making coffee, but burning it that makes a strong enough smell to completely eliminate the rot after the source has been removed.

Get a pot you don't care about, or go get one for $1 from goodwill. Make some coffee, pour it in, and maybe shake some grounds in to it too. Set it to simmer on the stove and let it simmer dry and burn on to the bottom of the pot. Then let the pot sit for a few hours after you shut it off to keep radiating smell, and just throw it out.

This will apparently kill even the most putrid smells, and i remember coffee being the only thing that covered up the awful smell after my kitchen caught fire at an old apartment.
posted by emptythought at 5:21 PM on March 18, 2013

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