Acrid, "industrial" odor in apartment in Summer...
June 20, 2015 5:13 PM   Subscribe

Western exposure, hot sun, polluted air, old masonry - Summer brings good things, but also a terrible smell to my apartment. So I have an indoor air quality question.

My apartment is on the third floor of a pre-World War I building in a congested city. The space has Western exposure and takes a *major* hit from the sun in the afternoon hours during the summer; the window frames get very hot. I'm finding myself troubled by a smell that arises daily from June through August...acrid, something like exhaust. I've wondered whether it's the smell of roasting masonry as the sun hits the Western side of the building, or perhaps some aspect of the window that smells when heated. Buses pass regularly down the street; I've wondered whether particulate matter that clings to the masonry smells when heated...I've wondered a lot of things!

Most of all, I wonder whether this is an indoor air quality hazard. I have looked at other AskMefi posts about indoor odors, and may look into air purifiers. But I'd like to get at the root of the problem.

(I need to check again to what degree the smell dissipates when windows are opened - though when the days are really hot, the apartment stays cooler with windows closed / shades drawn, whether or not A/C is used.)

Is this a phenomenon familiar to anyone? And if so - what remedies might there be?

Many thanks in advance!
posted by ferkit to Home & Garden (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Do you know anything about the building's history? Especially if it's in an industrial area, chances are there were industrial activities going on there - many of which include fumes of some kind that would penetrate into a porous material like brick or other masonry. Hot sun beating on it for long enough could reactivate those fumes.

Do you own the apartment? If you do (or if you don't but can get permission from the owner), I'd try sealing the exterior walls and window framing with a clear sealer and see if that helps. If you don't own the flat and can't treat the masonry and window framing, I'd probably move.I figure if it smells bad, it probably isn't friendly to your body. Life's too short.
posted by summerstorm at 8:35 AM on June 21, 2015

Response by poster: Hi, summerstorm (wonderful moniker!)

This is an ancient (by New York standards) apartment building, no industrial history. I don't own - it's rent stabilized, and ... moving is not an option unless we decamp from the city (a very complicated scenario from a personal, economic, and professional standpoint...but one I occasionally consider. The city's quality of life is increasingly ... problematic, and there are more humane places to live. (I've lived here all my life. I no longer <3 New York.)

I actually know the previous tenants of this apartment - they inhabited the place continuously for about 20 years with no known health issues related to indoor air quality. However! Personal constitutions differ. I may be the canary in the coal mine.

I think I may have the indoor air quality tested professionally.

posted by ferkit at 9:15 AM on June 21, 2015

Why don't you just ask them what the funny smell is?
posted by glasseyes at 12:39 PM on June 21, 2015

Response by poster: Glasseyes - this would seem reasonable, wouldn't it? The former tenants seem not to have noticed the smell. And our super is ... uninterested in tenant complaints.
posted by ferkit at 2:46 PM on June 21, 2015

Best answer: I also live in an older masonry apartment on a bus route (1950s, in my case) and I also get a stuffy, weird smell during hot days when the windows are closed. I got a similar smell at my old apartment (wood frame, late 1880s, fewer buses). It generally dissipates quickly once I get the air purifier/AC on or open a window. I'm not sure if I'd call it industrial, though, so it may not be what you're smelling.

Can you check with neighbors whose apartments have a southern or western exposure and see if anyone else's apartment smells like this?

Is there anyone who's moved in below you and might be painting or using solvents or something on these hot days? Is there a nail salon (or anyone else who might be using chemicals) in the building?

Are you having any health effects? Anything that gets worse with this smell?

Is your unit near a hydraulic elevator? I would describe hydraulic fluid as kind of acrid and industrial. (If you've ever been in a smelly elevator that jerked a lot instead of moving smoothly, that would be the smell.) Not sure why that would be worse on hot days, of course.

Where is your air intake? Most older units weren't really designed with ventilation -- they have infiltration instead, aka air coming from places where maybe it shouldn't be coming from. If you can trace where your air is coming from, you may figure out what's going on -- the prototypical example is the dead seagull in the air intake.

You can generally trace air flow by placing a high-volume fan in a window, pointing out, closing the other windows, and then going around the apartment looking for air flow. As long as you have a fan venting out the window to provide negative pressure, it's pretty easy to feel air flowing if you wet your finger. Check around pipes, backs of cabinets, door frames, electrical plates, bases of walls... I once traced a nasty smell to the strikeplate on the metal frame of a closet door. Interior of the door frame was hollow and was pumping in a nasty cat urine smell. No idea why, but once we foamed the inside of the door frame and cut off the air flow, the smell was (mostly) gone.

If you do get the air quality tested, the question will be what to actually test it for. High-quality air testing (e.g. with a SUMMA canister for volatile compounds) is expensive -- I doubt you'd find sampling much below $500-$1K. Also, make sure you're clear with the consultant about what you're sampling for. No point in running a sample for, say, asbestos fibers -- you wouldn't be smelling that.

Regardless of the source, an air purifier with a HEPA or charcoal filter will really cut down on odors and particulate matter. The filters do get expensive, though.
posted by pie ninja at 5:23 PM on June 21, 2015

Response by poster: pie ninja - thanks for this substantial - even exhaustive - answer! When I say 'industrial', I mean more like 'exhaust' (but not exhaust) than 'volatile' (doesn't smell like any volatile compound or solvent). It's...maybe musty, but to the nth degree. Musty with a real 'bite' to it, almost a metallic 'bite'.

(Has a real bouquet, doesn't it?!)

Y'know...we are next to the elevator (which is itself odorless); the shaft is around 25 feet away from the rooms in question. I don't know whether it's a hydraulic elevator (the building is 13 stories plus rooftop 'penthouses' - one neighbor called them 'double-wides on the roof' - and I don't know whether hydraulic elevators typically are used in buildings of this height.

If I can get my hands on a high-volume fan, I'll follow your sage counsel. And - I'm going to get a HEPA filtered air purifier.

Thanks, pie ninja!
posted by ferkit at 5:35 PM on June 22, 2015

If it's an older building with 13 floors, your elevator is almost certainly cable-driven. So your elevator is probably innocent. (The technology to cost-effectively expand hydraulic elevators above ~4 floors in range only came along maybe 10 years ago, and they're difficult to retrofit, so you don't really see them in older buildings.)

Musty, exhaust-y smell sounds similar to what I get in my building.

Good luck!
posted by pie ninja at 5:51 AM on June 23, 2015

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