QUESTION: We have a distressing, urine-like smell in the entry area of our home--on a section of cedar wall and a wall corner leading to the basement. Since mice have been a problem in the past, I thought maybe one or more had died in the walls. A pest control company assured me that this particular smell isn't caused by mice. We don't have cats or dogs. Any idea what the cause might be?
ANSWER: Since the odors are localized and limited to these two areas, they originate either in the wall cavities or the surface wall material. You didn't mention how long you have owned your home. Do you know whether the previous owners had animals that were kept in the entry area? If so, repeated saturation by urine could cause an enduring problem.
If you can't remove or diminish the smell with scrubbing and deodorizers, remove one or more outlet or switch plate covers in the problem areas. If the smell from the openings intensifies, you know that it's from the cavities. If there are no outlets or receptacles, you may want to drill a small test hole in the paneling. Choose a hidden area that can be readily plugged without damaging the aesthetics. If the smell comes from the wall cavities, remove the inside wall covering and clean, deodorize or remove the offending materials. Replace saturated insulation and/or wall panels as needed.
There also is an increasingly serious problem that renters, new home buyers and those staying in hotels have encountered: strange odors that indicate the past presence of an illegal methamphetamine laboratory.
"In 1983, three illegal meth labs were discovered by authorities in Washington. In 1988, that number escalated to 93," said Gary Irvine, environmental health supervisor for the Seattle/King County Department of Public Health.
The chemicals that are used in the production of methamphetamines are known carcinogens and very toxic and if the smell resembles that of cat urine and can't be removed or deodorized, be suspicious.
Many of these labs--and the chemical contamination--can go undetected by the authorities. People who manufacture these drugs or "meth cookers," as they are called, move in, manufacture their drugs and move out before anyone is the wiser. Unwitting new occupants can experience health problems--nausea, nose bleeds and general lack of energy. Children are especially susceptible because they spend a lot of time on the floor where the chemicals may have spilled.
The chemicals readily penetrate concrete floors, sinks, countertops, rugs, sheet rock, even structural framing. Some dwellings and hotel rooms become so contaminated, that they can no longer be occupied. So contaminated that, if torn down, the materials need to be stored in a hazardous-waste dump.
Abandoned chemicals tend to be left in unlabeled glass jars and may have corrosion around metallic covers. "Look for stains on the floors or walls, abandoned glassware or hoses. There is no specific pattern for housing units that might be affected. Labs have been discovered in expensive waterfront homes, tract houses, mobile homes, trailers, duplexes and even hotel rooms," Irvine said.
If a building has been identified by a law enforcement agency as a former drug lab that has housed hazardous chemicals, the law requires the owner to inform new purchasers and occupants.
Private testing firms can monitor for indoor air, surface soil and water contamination. More and more, real estate contracts contain hazardous-waste clauses that protect the purchaser against property contamination.
If you think you have this problem, contact either your local health or police department. They can advise you over the phone or send someone out to help assess the situation.
In an earlier column, the news from Kuwait inspired us to write about the progress we've made since the '70s in reducing energy consumption. Also offered was practical advice for reducing our individual consumption of oil.
We focused on the biggest oil user for us all--our cars. Convenient as they are, our cars use more energy than our houses and appliances combined. Readers in the market for a new or used car have a great opportunity to buy a fuel-efficient one.
Our advice? Try to find one that gets at least 35 miles per gallon (m.p.g.). Already, there are models available that get over 50 m.p.g. Look for the EPA's gas mileage ratings--they appear on all new cars and the EPA Gas Mileage Guides for years past can be referenced for used cars.
In EPA's 1989 Gas Mileage Guide, the following models rated in the 30s or higher for both city and highway driving. Safety ratings are indicated as well.