Sniffing a friend’s new house

If only the walls could talk.

A friend recently bought a new house. She invites me over to sniff around, check the place out and make sure the clean up crew did a proper job. I reluctantly agree to dispatch the Scentinelle to the scene; not everyone really wants to know.

My first stop is the dining room. Gag, stale poopy cat litter.

“Did the former owner have a cat?” I ask Hillary. She glances nervously at her husband, Steve. (Not their real names.)

“No, but we do, and we put the litter box in here where you’re standing when we first moved in. But we moved it out about two weeks ago because it stunk. You can still smell that?”

If only the walls could talk

“Yep, you might want to open the window,” I suggest step around some moving boxes and saunter toward the kitchen, where I poke my nose into each cupboard. The pots and pans drawers are scented with stale bacon grease that’s many years old. My grandmother’s face comes to mind. She always cooked in cast iron pans that smelled like this drawer.

I open the pantry, and whew! I recoil from a blast of stench.

“You’ve got some seriously rancid oil in here,” I announce trying to hide the screwed up expression of disgust on my face. I take small, shallow breaths to hone in on the offending item. I locate it in the back: a plastic bottle of canola oil about half used with an expiration date of two years prior. I show it to Hillary.

“I’ve been meaning to get rid of some of this stuff,” she blushes, “but between moving and the baby, I just don’t have time to do all the things around the house I need to.”

“No worries, I’m glad I can help.” I toss the nasty oil in the trash. I know that she’s lucky just to get a full night’s sleep.

I nose around the rest of the house. The bathroom has some minor offenders: a few hair and skin products containing harsh preservatives, dyes and hormone disruptors. In their bedroom, I smell that they are a happy, cozy couple.

Their daughter’s room is another story. It is a minefield of harmful plastic. The worst offender is a new bolster cushion. It off-gases some kind of skin-burning heavy metal petroleum stench that sends me running to the bathroom sink where I vomit brunch.

Heat finished plastic looks shiny and reeks of burnt hair

I emerge in a cold sweat, afraid to go back in and finish the tour. But the Scentinelle is brave, and a toddler’s health is at stake. So I head back into her room and sniff on. I point in revulsion at the bed frame, a daybed coated in shiny white plastic that Hillary had just bought for her little princess. I pause; it breaks my heart to tell her how it reeks of burnt hair. Images flash in my mind of Chinese factory workers with their eyebrows sizzled off and noses permanently burned on the inside.

I move over to the shelves of toys. It’s a conga line of weird coatings and metallic paints, the kind of nasty stuff that might make her little princess start developing breasts at age 5. But I tell her anyway. She looks devastated, like I’ve just told her Santa isn’t real.

I move onto the living room. The corner opposite the fireplace smells of ammonia. That must be where someone or something died; it’s too concentrated to be a casual spill. The cleaners had done their job well enough. But underneath the ammonia there was a lingering smell of protracted illness, like what I smell in nursing homes and end-of-life care facilities. There was an unmistakable odor of a body that has stopped processing life. I ask Hillary what she knows about the circumstances that warranted such a cleaning, perhaps if the former owner or a pet died here.

“Oh my god! You can smell that!” Hillary’s eyes widen and tear. Her hands quiver, and she folds her harms across her chest to contain them. “What we know is that the woman, the former owner was young, in her forties and wasn’t ready to die. She died of liver disease, of hepatitis C, on a couch here in this room in the corner.”

Time to open all the windows.

ABOUT THIS COLUMN: Some odors are especially sticky: in my nose, in my brain and in my heart. Those are the smells that are the topics of this weekly Wednesday feature, Reek of the Week.

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  1. Just wanted to pop on here and say I really appreciate your blog, it is fascinating and I feel like it really opens my mind, not just to the idea of super-sensitive smell but also to how there is so much more lurking beneath the surface of the areas we live in than we ever know about (and that affects us without us ever realizing).

  2. i am amazed that you can pick up a smell of a dead body weeks after it had been removed and after the place had been scrubbed with ammonia.

    have you ever considered working for a forensics department? your olfactory powers could be more valuable than those of a trained dog.

  3. wonder if i should ever let you in my house again. LOL.

    • I’m coming to appreciate the difference between really smelling something and judging an aroma. I would probably be more fascinated than repelled.

  4. Michael pierce says:

    Fascinating story.
    I have a question:
    The landlord of the house I rented just finished his wood floors with oil-based polyurethane, and has kept the windows closed because of the rain recently. Although the floors were done over 6 weeks ago, the odor is overpowering. I am looking for a way to mitigate the off-gassing and the exposure to sloughing of particulates over time. I notice that most finishes require sanding…which would stir up a lot of toxic dust. Do you know of a product that will seal in off-gassing from the oil-based polyurethane? If it could be applied over oil-based polyurethane without sanding, it would be ideal.

    Otherwise, do you have any suggestions for improving air quality, under the circumstances?
    Thanks for your help.
    Michael J. Pierce


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