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Thread: sweet smell coming off of baseboard heaters

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    DIY Junior Member yarrow's Avatar
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    Default sweet smell coming off of baseboard heaters

    these are way old (50's?) copper tube and flange hot water baseboard units in an apartment that i just moved into. the longer i run the units, the higher the setting, the stronger the smell, kind of a chemical sweet smell. i've totally soaked/cleaned them with non-toxic cleaner, so that they're completely shiny/like new, but still get the odor when i turn them on/leave them running.

    i notice if i turn the units down to 60 at nite, they'll kick in early morning and i wake up with chest pain, sore throat, smelling that sweet odor and my cat does a wierd thing with his mouth, like he's got something distasteful in there.

    if i leave the heat on for several days in a row during the day, my cat will start throwing up, hiding in closets.

    reading earlier threads, i'm wondering if the sweet smell could be a glycol leak in the system? e.g. turning up the heat vaporizes it/makes it offgas more?

    i know my landlord thinks i'm crazy, but i've had too many toxic episodes in older buildings to ignore symptoms like this (e.g. being diagnosed with hodgkins, when in fact it was a sick building - whole thing cleared up when i identified the problem - poof, no more "hodgkins", co poisoning a couple of times, chimney backdrafting particulants, etc.). i'd leave, but other than this, the apartment is wonderful, environmentally sound.

    is there a way to show/prove that there is a leak, to convince the landlord to call in somebody? or is this just what these older units do and there's no fix, other than replacing the units?

    also, if it is a leak/leaks, is it enough to keep the units off - or can pinhole/undetectable leaks in a cold system cause health issues?

    any thoughts appreciated.
    Last edited by yarrow; 03-09-2008 at 08:00 PM.

  2. #2
    DIY scratch-pad engineer leejosepho's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by yarrow View Post
    reading earlier threads, i'm wondering if the sweet smell could be a glycol leak in the system? e.g. turning up the heat vaporizes it/makes it offgas more?
    Sounds right to me. Leaking anti-freeze in a automobile heater can give off that same kind of odor.

    Your local health department might be able to put you in touch with someone who has a sniffer to measure toxicity and maybe even find the leak. Or, look in your phone book and call the Poison Control Center and ask what you should do. And personally, I would either find a way to ventilate the place or sleep somewhere else until the problem is resolved.

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    Retired Defense Industry Engineer jadnashua's Avatar
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    A tablespoon or so of ethelyene glycol can easily kill a small animal...you may want to cage your cat before it dies. It can mess up their organs, so it may already be too late. It's sweet tasting, so they're attracted to it. Could be from various places, maybe the packing on the adjustment valve or maybe a leaking air vent.
    Jim DeBruycker
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    DIY Junior Member yarrow's Avatar
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    Default thanks for the input

    thanks guys for your input - i'm keeping the baseboard heat off and providing ventilation thruout the day (can't leave windows open for extended periods due to pollution/pollen issues). no more chest pain since shutting it off. i've shut the baseboard flaps so the cat can't access anything.

    interestingly, if i keep the apt. below ~68 degrees, no sweet odor. but if i allow the room temp to get upwards to 68 (using a separate space heater), i'll start noticing the odor again coming from the baseboard areas (faint at first, getting stronger if i allow the temp to climb) and i'll start experiencing chest soreness. which again, seems to point to glycol - it doesn't cause respiratory issues at lower temps, but will vaporize at the higher temps, causing inflammation of bronchial area.

    i'll contact the health/poison control guys on monday.

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    Plumber krow's Avatar
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    I'm just curious what glycol is even doing in the heating system......... unless its heating a parking garage or ramp........ in which case it would end up going through a heat exchanger anyway. The heating system should not have any glycol in it. It is possible to have a leak in the heat exchanger, but that may freeze in the garages or ramps when mixed with water.

    I would definetly ask to have some tests done on the system, but it may not be coming from you radiators

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    DIY Junior Member yarrow's Avatar
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    yeah, i know it sounds wierd. but it is somehow related to the heat registers. since i've kept them off, no more problems with the cat or me.

    another tenant in the building is moving out because... her cat keeps puking and has stopped eating and the vet can't figure it out (after lots of visits/$$$ the vet is telling her it's immune system and is wondering if the cat is getting into something at home). i told her, hey, i don't know exactly what it is, but i can tell you what is causing your cat to be sick - told her to turn off her baseboard heat and loaned her a space heater, told her my cat had been doing the same thing for weeks until i figured out the cause. she checked back with me a couple days later - yep. fixed the problem. no puking, cat has come out of hiding, is eating food, moving around, back to old self.

    re: fresh air. i open my windows every day, but anyone who has allergies will tell you (including weather.com, lung association, allergy sites, etc.) that you probably don't want to keep them open all the time due to pollens, particulants, pollution (hmmm... is there a reason all of these things start with "p"?)

    another interesting correlation - the other tenant who is moving (an RN, not a nut case) started having a lot of the same symptoms i'd been having (e.g. rash/exzema, bleeding gums, waking up tired/fatigue when at home, sore throat, itchy eyes, etc. - which she only started getting when she moved in several months ago. again, the symptoms went away when she turned off her heat.

    re: why would they put glycol in the system, the current landlord does not, but since they have never drained the system, it's the only thing i can think of. otherwise, why the chemical sweet odor that kicks in when you turn the heat up? (and i cleaned off all of the flanges/registers - squeaky clean - first thing i tried).

    no, no lawsuits. i'm looking for another place. just trying to stay safe in the meantime.
    Last edited by yarrow; 03-05-2008 at 10:54 AM.

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    Retired Defense Industry Engineer jadnashua's Avatar
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    Depending on where the boiler is, say an unheated space, it may need freeze protection if it were to fail. This sounds like a call to the local building inspector might be called for...check on-line in one of the health websites...I think that the symptoms will match up with glycol poisoning.
    Jim DeBruycker
    Important note - I'm not a pro
    Retired Defense Industry Engineer; Schluter 2.5-day Workshop Completed 2013, 2014

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    Jack of all trades frenchie's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Raucina View Post
    Other words starting with "P" - Paranoid, Paranoia, Pre-disposed to hysteria.

    Glycol is an injested poison. Do you drink your radiator water, of which you have no evidence of its presence within?

    Glycol is not a evaporative toxin and your radiators are not aerosolizing or boiling gylcol off of them.

    Your building must have defective cats or you are downwind of some secret government nuclear test site. Get rid of the cats and get a canary. Set the cage on the radiator and turn it up full.... if it dies, you might have something to investigate. Until then, RN's are pretty weird broads in general, and I would move to Hudson bay if I had your level of life distress.

    consider your apartment block as a fore front of natural selection - Those who cannot take enviromental poisons are now doomed to wither. Wither thou goest you will have problems.


    Glycol vapor causes eye, nose & throat irritation - exactly the symptoms described. Consumption of glycol antifreeze causes nausea & vomiting - exactly the symptoms described.

    Look it up.

    Just because the OP can't find the leak, doesn't mean there isn't one.
    Last edited by Cookie; 03-07-2008 at 12:55 PM.
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    Default One of many types of glycol test results.

    Comparative observations on the growth rates, blood counts, urine examinations, kidney function tests, fertility and general condition of the test and control groups, exhibited no essential differences between them with the exception that the rats in the glycol atmospheres exhibited consistently higher weight gains. Some drying of the skin of the monkeys' faces occurred after several months continuous exposure to a heavy fog of triethylene glycol. However, when the vapor concentration was maintained just below saturation by means of the glycostat this effect did not occur.

    Examination at autopsy likewise failed to reveal any differences between the animals kept in glycolized air and those living in the ordinary room atmosphere. Extensive histological study of the lungs was made to ascertain whether the glycol had produced any generalized or local irritation. None was found. The kidneys, liver, spleen and bone marrow also were normal.

    The results of these experiments in conjunction with the absence of any observed ill effects in patients exposed to both triethylene glycol and propylene glycol vapors for months at a time, provide assurance that air containing these vapors in amounts up to the saturation point is completely harmless.

    . Glycol vapors are even used to safely disinfect rooms, having strong effects on staph bacteria.

    No matter the test results, this guy is not injesting glycol, and the radiators are not aerosolizing anything except possibly cat urine.
    Last edited by Cookie; 03-07-2008 at 12:57 PM.

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    DIY Senior Member Nate R's Avatar
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    Is triethylene glycol different than ethylene glycol? I know propylene glycol is used as an animal-safe antifreeze. So what is it that makes it harmful? The ethylene? SOMETHING in antifreeze is toxic, there's no doubt about that, right?

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    Moderator & Master Plumber hj's Avatar
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    Default irritation

    1. Glycol is an antifreeze compound and there is no reason for it to be in your heating system, and since it is expensive and complicated to inject, I doubt that your owner was willing to invest the money when there were no returns for doing it. In fact there are mechanical, not health, downsides from using it.
    2. If your system had a leak he would need to have the glycol injectors come by periodically and add to the system, and after a couple of sessions they would have tried to locate a leak. And when they knocked on your door, you would have told them where it was.
    3. Even if you had a leak, it stretches the credibility to assume someone else also has a "phantom" leak that leaves no traces other than an odor when heated.
    4. Male cats? If so, I would lean more to them spraying the radiation to mark their territory, than a glycol leak.

  12. #12

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    Yarrow, HD (hodgkins lymphoma) is really considered an environmental cancer. I know this because I have had for the past 10 years, NHL ( Non hodgkins lymphoma) Not to confuse you, NHL and HD are still both cancers, in the same league, only a different cell is found. They are both lymphomas. Now, Yarrow, I strongly suggest you seek another oncologist to make sure you don't have lymphoma. Reason being, I have never heard of anything like you said. I only wish with all my heart, it disappeared for you and for others effected, and hoping I don't sound selfish here, but for me, as well. I am not saying, you might not had been misdiagnosed for with lymphomas that is very easy to do but not with HD.

    HD is the Reed Sternberg cell. Under the scope that cell takes on the appearance of a set of " OWL EYES." It is very difficult to mistake that. I am not saying it can't happen, just that the chances are slim to none. That is how the pathologist determines it is indeed, HD, Hodgkins Disease.

    That in a nutshell is what makes me say to you, to seek another opinion here. HD actually has a cure rate, if found early enough. So, this is something you do not want to fart around on doing. If you have to have lymphoma, this is the absolute one, out of the several it could be, that you want to get.

    I am sorry, but, if someone told you, lymphoma, please go. What you could have can be quite easily dealt with.

    I don't know anything about what else you posted, but, I do sadly on this. I learned pretty much everything I could about lymphoma since I believe that knowledge is power; and when one goes to battle ( as in any war) you need to have every weapon available to you. I have even taught about lymphoma at the college level.

    One thing you must not do is panic. Do it for those who love you. Just get another opinion, get more scans, another blood test and check your body for lumps, bumps, rashes, or make it fun and have someone else do it for you, lol, just do it.

    One thing I absolutely hate to mention is the fact that their is a relationship between cat scratch fever and lymphoma. When I was first dx'd in 98, my husband was with me and they saw he had some cat scratches on his arms. They questioned him about it, (entering it into my medical records) and questioned me if the cat ever scratched me. Infact, he didn't; only my husband, because they played rough together, whereas, the cat and I would only snuggle together. Now, how fair is that, eh? He got scratched and I got the lymphoma, lol. Men.

    If in doubt, there are articles on the net somewhere about the correlation between the 2. But, don't throw your cat away, I still have mine, and still never get scratched. I am just careful not to.

    Good luck. I wish you well.
    Last edited by Cookie; 03-07-2008 at 01:27 PM.

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    DIY Senior Member Nate R's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by hj View Post
    4. Male cats? If so, I would lean more to them spraying the radiation to mark their territory, than a glycol leak.
    FWIW, this does not apply if the cat is fixed.

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    DIY Junior Member yarrow's Avatar
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    [QUOTE=Cookie;127832] "I strongly suggest you seek another oncologist to make sure you don't have lymphoma. Reason being, I have never heard of anything like you said. I only wish with all my heart, it disappeared for you and for others effected, and hoping I don't sound selfish here, but for me, as well. I am not saying, you might not had been misdiagnosed for with lymphomas that is very easy to do but not with HD. .."

    no worries - that was several years back (2000-2001). after figuring out/remedying the environmental triggers and doing the detox work, got a clean slate re: pet scans (advanced form of xray) - all the lymph fluid and granulomas gone - poof. they call it remission, i call it figuring out what's going on in your environment and taking care of business (before it takes care of you). i get periodic xrays, just to check on things.

    interesting statistic - oncologists will tell you that 85% of ALL cancers are environmentally induced.

    another really wierd one (which is really troublesome when combined with the other) - epa, based on random checks are now reporting that 1 out of every 4 buildings being built today are sick buildings.

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    DIY Junior Member yarrow's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Nate R View Post
    FWIW, this does not apply if the cat is fixed.
    cat piss/markings are very distinct odors. trust me, cat piss or marking odors are anything but chemical sweet. also, both cats in the building are neutered (mine is 15 yrs old, neutered since kitten, never sprays).

    i've got another apt./duplex - move in on the 1st. i'm keeping the windows open just to be on the safe side, even tho the heat is turned off. the dry, itchy eyes, rash on face, bleeding gums is completely gone since turning off the heater.

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