What’s That Smell Part 2: Renovated House

Reader Contribution by Paula Baker-Laporte
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I received the following heart-felt letter from a new Grandma.

“I hope you can help!   I am worried about my new 3 week old granddaughter.  My daughter moved into a bank refinished home when she was 7 month pregnant.  The house always smelled of new carpet, paint, and many other unknown smells. Well since the baby’s birth whenever I go to this house I can smell things sometimes even cigarette smoke and nobody smokes. I am very sensitive to smells and my head gets foggy and my throat hurts.  Now the baby has cold symptoms and I think it may be the house.  We open the windows as much as possible but it isn’t getting much better. What should we do?

Thank You so much,


Dear Theresa,

Your daughter moved in to a bank refinished home. I think we can safely assume that the products used to “freshen-up” the repo were not chosen for their health and environmental assets but rather for their cheap cost. New paint, new carpeting and perhaps a myriad of other newly introduced pollutant sources are mingled with remnants of pollutants introduced by previous occupants including smoke. The smells are still strong after more than 2 months of trying to air out the home. This is no surprise. Many people with hypersensitivity can detect paint and carpeting for years!  

Fortunately for your precious new arrival, you are a Grandma with some environmental sensitivities and a good nose. You are her guardian canary!  For you, the smell of the chemicals in the air is pungent and you can feel the effects in your own body. Others, less sensitive may not be as aware of the dangers posed to your grandchild as you are. Since your granddaughter’s immune system is not fully developed yet she is especially vulnerable to toxic chemical exposures and you are right to be deeply concerned. It is very important to create a home environment for a newborn that is safe and free of these chemicals.  

There are many things that you can do to reduce the chemical load that your family is breathing in. Each comes with a price tag so I will give a variety of options.

Concentrate on the nursery first … this is triage!

  • Get a good quality 3-part portable HEPA filter and run it in the babies room at night Don’t park it near the crib but as far away as possible. I recommend the Austin Air Healthmate  or the IQ Air VOC GC. The unit can be moved out into the rest of the house during the day to assist with outgassing there. Because there is a high load I recommend changing the various filters more frequently than the manufacturer recommends. Depending on the size of the house and the budget  it may be ideal to have more than one unit.
  • If budget allows remove the carpet and replace with a healthy resilient floor like cork floor or Forbo Marmolean linoleum in the nursery but be sure to use benign products to install these new floors so that no more harmful chemicals are introduced. Refer to my book Prescriptions for a Healthy House for suggested installations. If budget allows remove the carpeting throughout the house and replace with more easily cleaned, chemical-free wood, ceramic, stone. Besides being a potential source for many chemicals when new the carpet will adsorb other fumes and become a reservoir for dust, and dirt over time and….the floor is where your grand daughter will be spending a lot of time playing for her early years. A soft throw rug or sheepskin can be used over these harder surfaces to make it cozy. If budget does not allow then I would suggest treating all carpets with AFM SafeChoice, Comprehensive 3-Part Carpet Shampoo and Sealing System and vacuuming diligently with a very good HERPA vacuum. Two of my favorites are Nilfisk and Miele. These are not inexpensive but they are good quality. Most vaccums leave the air dustier after vacuuming than before. They don’t have fine enough filters to capture the finer particles  they suck up and they don’t have strong enough suction to do real deep cleaning.
  • Repaint the walls with a product that will seal-in the odors such as AFM SafeCoat Safeseal
  • If the heating and cooling is via forced air, make sure the ductwork has been recently cleaned by steam cleaning method (not chemical cleaning). Buy enhanced filtration for the furnace. 3M makes an inexpensive Filtrete Ultra Allergen filter designed to fit into the regular slot common to most furnace units. You should be able to pick these up at your home depot. The addition of a fresh air source to the furnace would help to dilute the concentration of chemicals in the air even when it is too cold to air the home out naturally. Broan Nutone Guardian Plus air System includes filtration and ventilation or Lifebreath HRV tempers fresh air as it introduces it into your system.
  • Summer is on the way. Keep the house as open as possible so that it can continue to air out. Use that good nose of yours to protect your grandchild. After applying some of these fixes keep evaluating the air with your nose every time you enter the home. You may find that as some odors are reduced you will be able to smell new ones that were there all the time but hidden under the stronger smells.  

We have just scratched the surface. Testing can verify the high levels of chemicals that you are already experiencing but this is only helpful if you need to convince anyone that the problem is real. The money is best spent on fixing the obvious first. A home inspection by an expert may further reveal important sources of indoor pollution and suggest remedies. The Institute for Building Biology and Ecology has a list of graduates around the country and perhaps there is an inspector in your area. Don’t be surprised if new odors are “unmasked” as you begin to clean up this front line of chemical exposures. For example it may be impossible to smell mold which could be present but overpowered by fresh paint and carpet smells.

Good luck … and congratulations on the new arrival!

Do you suspect that your home is causing health issues? Are you doing a renovation or new home and have a health question? Please send your questions to info@econest.com and put Mother Earth News Blog in the subject. Your situation will probably be of interest to other readers too so as time permits I will answer your questions in my blog. 

Paula Baker-Laporte FAIA  is an architect, healthy building consultant, instructor for the International Institute of Building Biology and Ecology and author. She is the principle of EcoNest Architecture. She is primary author of “Prescriptions for a Healthy House” and co-author with husband Robert Laporte of “Econest-Creating Sustainable Sanctuaries of Clay, Straw and Timber”.  www.econesthomes.com