19
Jan
06

“Room to Breathe?

I’ve spent the better part of the holidays and the first part of January catching up on e-mails. They seem to take up a lot more time than I’d ever anticipated. I apologize to those that have been waiting for me to get back to writing actual “stories.” Based on my recent posts, a more accurate title for this site would be “AsktheCoroner.com.” I hope to have a real story written very soon. In the meantime, here’s a posted comment I received recently along with my response.

Hi, I’m having a terrible time with residual odor in my apartment after a death in neighboring apartment in mid-December. The body went undiscovered for between 10-14 days. The apartment was below mine on the ground floor sharing a wall with a deli. Now the deli, my apartment and another apartment adjoining mine, all have a terrible odor.

The neighbors had been reporting an odor since December 16th and were told a rat/mouse had died in the wall. The smell of decay was awful by the 23rd, it had invaded the lobby and hallways. The body was removed on December 26th. According to the apartment owner, the police came into the apartment and placed some type of “pellets” there that were supposed to absorb the decomposition odor around New Year’s Day. While the owner was advised the pellets may have an odor of their own, they nor the advanced decompostion, were supposed to have a negative impact on the neighbors affected by the odor.

I had been away for the holidays at the time the body was discovered and arrived home on the 29th to find my apartment unlivable. The smell is so overwhelming the deli resorted to burning wood fires to cover the odor (of course the fire department was called and they were cited appropriately). The smell is acrid and almost ammonia-like…not like the odor of decay reported before Christmas.

The odor is causing my eyes, throat and nose to burn as well as causing nausea, fatigue and headaches. I spoke with several air quality experts who suggested I move out until the source apartment is cleaned and that I try ventilation (as much as possible when the apartment is vacant) and possibly an air purifier designed to handle gaseous odor removal. I also have tttropical fish and my fish tanks have become unmanageable…the gas fumes are driving the ph levels off the charts and seem to be putting bacteria in the water.

I’ve moved in with my parents in NJ, purchased a $1000 IQ multi-gas air-purifier (running on max 24 hours a day) but my apartment is still toxic. The odor is coming up through the hardwood floors, under the kitchen sink, and is also quite strong in the bathroom. The odor increases dramatically when the heat comes on. I have been driving into the City every toher day to check on my apartment and things are not improving.

The The Co-op board and building management haven’t accepted any responsibility for clean-up and the unit owner is grieving and trying to clean the unit a bit at a time herself with family/friends. She has not employed professionals and has not taken any precautions or chemically neutralized any surfaces. For that matter, the deceased’s mattress is standing in the building courtyard…when I complained about possible contamination, they cut the larger stains off and left it there. They now plan to paint th walls with sealer as a remedy.

I have tried contacting the Board of Health and gotten no response, tried the Public Advocate only to find that he can’t help a Co-op building. I don’t know where to turn, but I need to get rid of the odor and move home.

Do you have any suggestions for odor removal? Could you tell me what the “pellets” were that the police put in the apartment?

Also, do you have any suggestions on who I might contact for help at this point…I don’t have a lot of money to hire a lawyer to fight this and I don’t want it to drag on forever. I just want to breathe decent quality air in my own home.

Any help or suggestions would be greatly appreciated!

Best,

C

C,

The only effective remedies I’ve ever known are ventilation and time. Of course it’s harder to ventilate a house in the winter when one has to worry about pipes freezing. While the odor is extremely repugnant, I personally have never experienced respiratory burning, eye irritation, or headaches—even after hours of exposure to the smell in a confined space.

I’ll admit that when I first started there were some nauseating effects, but in retrospect it seems to have been more of a psychosomatic effect of knowing the origin of the stench. Now I find that the longer I’m around the odor, the more my olfactory senses become “acclimated.? Sort of like walking into a public restroom after someone has fouled up the atmosphere—multiplied by 100 of course. The smell doesn’t go away, the nose just gets used to it.

That said, the odor you describe (“acrid and almost ammonia-like?) and its persistence long after the death makes me think you are actually smelling someone’s failed attempt to clean or cover up the smell. It sounds like the symptoms and situation you describe are more likely to result from exposure to a meth lab than to a dead body. I’m not suggesting that as a possibility—it just sounds awfully familiar.

Smells are like smoke—where there’s smoke, there’s a source. If the smell doesn’t go away, then there is likely biological contamination in the carpet, padding, or ventilation that will have to be removed before the smell will go away. My money is on the ventilation system as the intensity increases when the heat comes on.

I myself wouldn’t worry about exposure related issues unless I came into physical, unprotected contact with biological fluids. I suppose airborne pathogens are a remote possibility, but not after this amount of time.

Keep in mind that the persons most at risk are those that handled the body within close proximity to the time of death. People moved him, examined him, transported him, and prepared him for disposition and most likely managed to do so without any short-term or long-term consequences. If there are long-term hidden effects of dealing with dead people, I’m screwed.

Please don’t think I’m making light of your concerns. I’m only trying to emphasize that people have been dying for centuries without adversely affecting the living—excluding the Black Plague of course. Unless you have a problem with biting rodents, I wouldn’t worry about health effects.

I’m curious as to what pellets the police used myself. I’m not aware of any sort of product. I know many fire departments have a solution that they apply to contaminated sections of pavement after motor vehicle fatalities, but I doubt that would benefit you since your problem seems to be smell.

I’m most curious that the police would’ve been concerned about the smell at all. Ordinarily, the clean up of any mess created by the deceased has always been the responsibility of the property owner. The logic being that the taxpayers shouldn’t be held responsible for the expense or effort required to clean up a scene.

My only knowledge of co-op boards was gleaned from watching reruns of Frasier. As for legal issues apart from criminal or civil cases involving death, I know even less. I’m afraid I haven’t been much help, but I hope some of what I’ve written proves to be of use. I plan to use your comment as the subject of a post in hopes that someone else might be able to offer you some useful advice. The only comfort I can offer is that there are thousands of residences across the country that have contained decomposing bodies that are inhabited today, and I’m sure yours will be too.

Good luck to you.

A Douglas

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5 Responses to “”


  1. January 20, 2006 at 7:10 pm

    Good luck with the whiff, C.

    Douglas, I’d always wondered who did what clean-up after car crashes.

  2. 2 Jen
    January 26, 2006 at 1:49 pm

    Wow, that’s weird. Maybe C. should call the police again, maybe it’s not the decay smell at all, rather something new?

  3. January 31, 2006 at 11:33 am

    Wow, possibly the single most interesting blog I’ve read in a while! 🙂

  4. 4 piper
    February 14, 2006 at 9:40 am

    When I was 10, in the 4th grade, my family and I were out morel mushroom picking on a Sunday afternoon. It was May not long after the snow thaw, we were driving out of the woods on a 2-track to the main road and we smelled something dead.Only, this wasnt a porcupince or even a deer, it was a 17 year old girl who was murdered and dumped. Because of the wind, we didnt smell the body until we were leaving, by then we werent far from the girl.That is a horrible smell, one of the worse. My respect goes out to all those in Medical Examiner Offices who have this in thier (almost everyday) jobs. I cannot help when I get a whiff something dead, I get that immediate memory flashed into my mind-whether it be driving down the road or out in the outdoors. The creep who killed her was convicted of ‘manslaughter’ and served time in prison. By the time I was in college he was paroled. This happened about 26 years ago.

  5. 5 Useless-Quizzes
    March 10, 2006 at 4:39 pm

    My bet is that it’s the cleaning solution the apartment owner is using. The more complaints they get, the more they use exacerbating the problem. I would follow Jen’s advice and call the Police.

    Tell them there’s a noxious odor and your afraid of a gas leak.

    That’ll scramble the fire department and the local constables. Maybe when they get there and their eyes start to burn, they’ll call out someone from the air quality board to run some tests.

    The possible negative side effect is that you may get in big trouble if they find nothing.

    If you can control the severity of the stench with the heater, kick it on right before you call or right before they get there to maximize the effect.

    Good luck.


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