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.