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This is our second fall/winter in our 4th floor apartment, and we've noticed that whenever the weather becomes cool, exhaust fumes which seem to come from the garage in the basement of the apartment building, seep into our apartment through the bathroom vent/fan and the shower vent/fan (both are separate rooms). My eyes burn in the middle of the night and I feel dizzy - in the morning our small child tells us that she has a headache and/or a stomachache. When I get up in the middle of the night, I can smell this awful exhaust fume smell in both the bathrooms, and I have to turn and leave both fans on the whole night and morning to help just a little. Our landlady refuses to acknowledge this issue, and we're currently living in Europe, so I wouldn't know where to complain to. How can we fix this so we don't feel sick every day?!


Follow up from what appears to be the OP:

Thank you all for the info. I pasted most of your replies in an email I sent for her last night to help further clarify the situation. Unfortunately, since there was a mold problem we noticed when moving in, and she had to take care of it, she is reluctant to do much else - I think she believes I'm a hypochondriac and that I'm too sensitive!

We live in Salzburg, and I've been to the doctor many times (for myself and my child) and they dismiss the complaints about headaches, stomachaches and nausea - and never address it! Our pediatrician said it must be the "change of weather/climate" we are experiencing from having moved to Salzburg!

We are somewhat financially limited, as rent is high in Salzburg and vacant apts are scarce! Believe me, I'm freaking out about this and I can't sleep anymore...I don't know what to do - it's just one thing after another... first the mold, then a chain-smoking neighbor who would smoke all night and the stench would seep into our house (our landlady said there is nothing we can do about it), and now this (which has been going on for who knows how long!!). I purchased a CO detector today and put it in the bathroom (ELRO RM355). I'm worried that if, as some of you say, this doesn't pick it up - I will have no proof. I've been apartment hunting for 8 months now and am exhausted.

Could it be that being on the top floor of the building is the issue? As in, all odors, smoke and gases rise to the top?! I try to take my child outdoors as much as I can, and at night I run the fans and try to open the windows - but it's getting colder.

Just wanted to add that smell gets real bad in the middle of the night - it does smell like car exhaust fumes, but I don't think we have any neighbors running their cars in the garage at 3 am.

Also, if I do seal the vents with saran wrap, will it cause mold? The CO detector hasn't picked anything up yet...

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    Which country in Europe? – RedGrittyBrick Sep 13 '15 at 10:24
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    Its a health hazard. I would have no hesitation reporting to local council that you are concerned about a threat to the health of your child. I would expect (and insist on) a quick response. – RedGrittyBrick Sep 13 '15 at 10:29
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    Possibly a faulty heating system in the basement. The solution is probably to unblock, service, repair or replace the parts or appliance generating fumes &/or causing them to enter ventilation. If bath/shower vents are directly to exterior, the source is likely to be elsewhere. Blocking the vents might help a little but will lead to the growth of mould which is also harmful. Carbon monoxide is odourless, is emitted by badly maintained gas/oil heaters and kills people. If the building owner was unresponsive I'd be talking to doctors, council and lawyers & looking for a new home. – RedGrittyBrick Sep 13 '15 at 11:02
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    Also in a comment: a CO detector, especially a good one that shows actual levels rather than a mere alarm, might be a good help for you in battling the landlord. If it really registers any harmful CO concentration, they simply cannot dismiss it any more. CO is a fatal threat to you and other inhabitants and should they want to take it lightly, it might mean the prison for them. Hopefully nobody, none of you or anybody else will be harmed, of course, but this might be just enough to frighten them. – Gábor Sep 13 '15 at 15:50
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    @sheg Please, please, please keep us posted on your situation. I'm concerned for your safety, and I'm sure I'm not the only one. – BrownRedHawk Sep 13 '15 at 22:32
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PLEASE seek professional assistance immediately.

There are two main issues with exhaust that can make you feel ill like this: Carbon Dioxide and Carbon Monoxide. Both are harmful, if not fatal, if the percentage present in the air you breath is too high. You DESPERATELY need to install a carbon monoxide detector, and contact your local housing authority. This is not something to be taken lightly, nor fixed by amateurs. HVAC follows particular code and regulations in many countries. I suspect that your venting exhaust is either too close to the garage venting, or is venting INTO the garage.

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    +1 This. But note that CO detectors are notably unreliable and so you should not use them as your primary defense. Your primary defense should be to contact your landlord and your local housing authority immediately to get it fixed and to be extremely cautious. If you have any headaches or blurred vision or speech problems or feel drowsy, immediately leave. – RoboKaren Sep 13 '15 at 17:27
  • @RoboKaren absolutely agree. A detector/alarm will be a good, easy red flag if the landlord is resistant to help. – BrownRedHawk Sep 13 '15 at 18:40
  • +1 too you BrownRedHawk, this needs to be dealt with NOW. – WarLoki Sep 13 '15 at 23:44
  • @RoboKaren: what's your basis for claiming that CO detectors are unreliable? In the US they go through UL certification just like smoke detectors. One big difference between CO detectors and smoke detectors is that CO alarms are time-weighted... it takes a longer time to trigger an alarm at a low CO level than a high level, since short exposure to low levels of CO (e.g. from a gas stove) are not harmful. – Hank Sep 14 '15 at 16:56
  • The problem is that because the consequences of a false negative (CO present but no alarm) are so problematic, most are set to be extremely sensitive and thus apt to give false positives (alarming w/o dangerous levels of CO). Many people also do not read the instructions and place them in the same location as their fire alarms (combination fire/CO units compound this problem), which is the wrong location for CO. You should never depend on a CO detector as your primary protection against CO. – RoboKaren Sep 14 '15 at 17:12
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Although not an answer different from the others but I'd like to point out, and considering its importance in this case, it probably can be tolerated in an answer of its own rather than buried somewhere among comments: on your way home today, not tomorrow or next week but today, pass a reliable hardware store in your neighborhood and buy a CO detector and install it immediately.

It's about €25 to €50 depending on quality (you can buy cheaper but it's not really advisable, I found the best to have a separate display for levels, not just an alarm).

Install it right away so that you have a warning possibly even this night or a coming night if the CO concentration becomes dangerous. CO is much more than a nuisance and reason for some headache, it kills.

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Seek medical attention immediately, and have the doctors provide a report on your health and diagnosis. Find out from them how dangerous it is to continue to expose yourself and your family to those fumes.

After that, you have a few options, you might try one or more of them in parallel depending on the report itself:

  • Provide copies of them to your landlord and demand safe living conditions. Use the mail system and send them via certified mail so you receive a receipt of mailing and arrival. This can be used not only to make sure they are aware that this is an official complaint, but also to point out later that they were notified of the situation. In many cases landlords have a short time frame to fix emergency problems or problems that make units unfit to live, and providing a legally accepted start date via official mail will help prove the timeline later. Talking to them in person probably won't help in the long run - they can deny this later and pretend it's a new problem, but certified mail is harder to deny.
  • File a police report - this is an emergency situation - you cannot live in your home while this is happening.
  • Contact your local government housing authority - they have rules landlords must follow, and a complaint filed with them will speed resolution.
  • Hire a building inspector yourself to check out the situation - they will be able to explain to you why it's happening, and what your options are. If it's too expensive then consider first how valuable your health is. It's possible you may be able to recoup this cost from the landlord in some cases.
  • Discuss your options with a lawyer or solicitor - you may be able to stop paying rent and pay instead into a escrow which will be released to the landlord once the unit is fit for living. Don't do this without legal assistance, though, many areas still don't recognize renter's rights, and you may find yourself facing legal problems if you don't follow the law. If your landlord has a lot of units, you may be able to find a lawyer who will take the case for low or no cost if they believe they will receive lawyers fees in a court case. For this to work you might want to find many other renters suffering the same problem. Sometimes a simple letter from a lawyer explaining your rights and the landlord's responsibility sent via certified mail is enough for the landlord to take action, and it may be that you can get a lawyer to do this inexpensively.
  • The next time this happens, call the fire department and tell them you smell smoke. They will investigate, and will probably identify the source of the problem. They may be able to help you understand how dangerous it is for you to stay there. They may also talk to the landlord and require changes because the building is a hazard. It may be that this won't cost you anything, and it may help - consider leaving the fans off, staying elsewhere overnight, and returning in the morning to see how bad it is and then calling so the problem is at its worst when they arrive. They may not be able to do anything, but depending on how your local government works, they may be very helpful in resolving the situation.

If it were me and my family, and I had no option to stay elsewhere while this was still going on, I would invest in CO and CO2 monitors, I would seal off the suspected entry points, and I would make an effort to keep clean fresh air flowing through the apartment at all times - probably using the windows and fans. I would document everything with dates, times, people contacted, etc, and I would use this as evidence of misdeeds. I would learn what my rights as a renter are, and exercise all of them to reach a good outcome quickly.

Again, I want to emphasize that talking to people may not get the results you need. Letters, documents, etc will be more actionable. However, a notebook of the times you talked with people and what you discussed can be very helpful later - when it's your word versus theirs, a notebook may tip the balance in your favor.

Lastly, please take care of your health. Some of the damage may be temporary, but some of the damage may be permanent. It's not worth your health to continue to live like this, particularly if you have developing children in this environment.


After edit follow up:

Also, if I do seal the vents with saran wrap, will it cause mold?

Yes, that's very likely. Given that you already have problems with mold you'll have to balance the two competing priorities. Since it's becoming cold you can't easily ventilate using windows. Given the rest of your follow up, I wouldn't recommend sealing the vents.

I purchased a CO detector today and put it in the bathroom (ELRO RM355). I'm worried that if, as some of you say, this doesn't pick it up - I will have no proof.

Good. Don't worry about it not picking it up. If there are dangerous levels of CO in the area it will sound an alarm. These types of alarms are very reliable and can generally be trusted.

Just wanted to add that smell gets real bad in the middle of the night - it does smell like car exhaust fumes, but I don't think we have any neighbors running their cars in the garage at 3 am.

Then it's probably not exhaust, and the alarm will probably not go off.

Without inspecting it myself, I'd suspect that the heater is turning on at night now that it's getting colder, and the smell is coming from the heater. If you have radiators around the house, it may be that one or more of them are dirty and the smell is coming from them. If it's a forced air furnace, you may have a dirty furnace or missing air filter, and the burning smell is coming from dust burning in the furnace. A furnace/heating system inspection may prove useful in finding the problem.

Given that the smell is in both the bathrooms, is it possible that people are leaving towels or other things on the radiators? If no one is leaving anything on the radiators, then it may just be dust or soap on them and they need a good scrubbing.

Beyond that, while it's hard to find the source of a smell, it can be done with patience and persistent effort. Take your time, and try to identify it over the next few weeks. You can place plastic wrap over the vents overnight to see if they are the source of the problem, but I doubt they are. Don't leave it on for more than a day, though, due to the mold issue.

I've been to the doctor many times (for myself and my child) and they dismiss the complaints about headaches, stomachaches and nausea

Now that you have the CO detector, and given that the doctor has told you that you are healthy, I think you need to relax a little. Place some trust in the doctor and the detector. It's hard to trust others with your health, but from what you've said so far, they may be right. Check the furnace/radiators, then trust the alarm and doctor. If you truly cannot trust them, find a new physician, try a new alarm, but it may be that the stress you're experiencing is doing more harm than the environment itself. If so, let go of the stress, trust others, and see if that helps with your health.

Also, if you are still very concerned about the quality of the air in your home, consider placing plants throughout the apartment. There are a number of plants that are specifically good at cleaning harmful things from the air, but nearly any plant is good as long as you maintain them. You may find that this resolves a lot of issues, including your neighbor's smoking.

If you can find local plants that you are familiar with in your last area, you may also feel more at home. They take some effort, but this can also be a relaxing task if you approach it as one.

  • My suspicion is that the police would be somewhat nonplussed. It might be useful for documentation purposes though. Unless your landlord owns the whole building, the Hausverwaltung are the ones to complain to (and even if she does, they're still responsible for the building as a whole). The Mietervereinigung mietervereinigung.at and the Arbeiterkammer arbeiterkammer.at/beratung/konsument/bauenundwohnen/miete/… are good places to start regarding your rights as a renter. – Peter Brant Sep 15 '15 at 14:02
  • @PeterBrant In many places this is true. The police might be able to direct the renters to the correct authorities if nothing else. In some places, though, it is against the law to rent uninhabitable units, so an investigation by the police may have some results. We don't know whether this will apply to the OP, but it may be an option in some places. Besides all this, being able to tell the landlord "I've filed a police report, would you like the investigation case number?" may prove energizing for some landlords... – Adam Davis Sep 15 '15 at 14:06
  • Also, regarding costs, the Hausverwaltung will arrange (and pay for) any repairs having to do with the building (vs. an individual unit). They also have a legal responsibility to do the right thing even over the objections of the property owners (although I don't know how much this is actually done in practice -- I suspect not often). – Peter Brant Sep 15 '15 at 14:13
  • @PeterBrant What you describe sounds like a country-specific situation. Presumably Hausverwaltung are property managers. In the US a landlord or property owner isn't required to have a property manager, they could manage it themselves. The legal liability of the property manager varies from place to place depending on local and regional laws. I have no idea what the laws are in other countries, nor where the OP is. – Adam Davis Sep 15 '15 at 14:18
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    By the way, this is really a great answer. It's fascinating that except for some minor terminology differences, everything here is completely applicable to Austria even though you're (presumably!) from somewhere else. – Peter Brant Sep 15 '15 at 14:21
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(I'm an American living in Austria.)

My first thought was something related to the heating system too (although we're not heating yet in Vienna).

I would still call the Rauchfangkehrer (chimney sweeps). There should be a flyer in the entry area of your building for the one responsible for your area. In Vienna, the flyer is usually yellow with a stylized logo of a chimney sweep running with a ladder. I've found them to be knowledgeable and helpful.

If you have easy access to a German speaker, that might be helpful. Depending on where you are (and who answers the phone), their English might be pretty basic.

They measure the exhaust of our furnace about once a year with a wand attached to a measuring device that prints out concentrations of various products of combustion. It seems likely it's much more accurate (and undoubtedly much more expensive) than something you could get at a hardware store.

Your building should also have a Hausverwaltung (building administrators). They should also have a flyer or placard by the outside door. They might be more responsive than the landlady. Her lack of interest makes me wonder if she understands the situation.

Either way, without repeating the other answers, I can only emphasize that CO poisoning is no joke.

  • Without disagreeing with you, boiler fumes leaking from the flue may not be picked up by such a system, which is intended to pick up poor combustion. Also the OP suspects automotive fumes from the garage (which would be more a matter of ducting). – Chris H Sep 14 '15 at 10:27
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If the landlord is unresponsive and the the detectors do not pick anything up, maybe it is a different gas. Either way it must come in from somewhere. Block the two vents as soon as possible with saran wrap and duct tape so it is more or less airtight. If it persists, trace along the walls to find any opening and seal it the same way. This stuff cannot just seep through the walls, it needs an entry point. Leave a window at least cracked. If it is getting cold, use an electric heater cheap from a secondhand store, or more blankets.

Just find the source, (sounds like those two vents), and clog it up with duct tape. Then, schedule an appointment with a maintenance guy to come see (or smell) for himself the vent clogged with tape or unclogged). If a guy comes in and sees it for himself, the landlord will be less likely to write it off.

protected by Community Sep 14 '15 at 20:39

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