The big stink, part 2

The house continued to smell of lethal stink-marker when we returned from one night at my mother’s.

Being a musician, my stepbrother did nothing about the stench except sleep at his girlfriend’s house. But he called the next day to tell us that our neighbor to the south now had the smell too.

Because our landlord owns all three of these properties, we finally called him from my husband’s cell phone when we were out to dinner. He immediately called the fire department and the fire marshals managed to arrive and leave before we got home.

According to my stepbrother, they didn’t even bother to fully apply the brake on their vehicle as they gave him the news – this smell was expected because the city sewer line was being worked on a block away. The vapors weren’t flammable or dangerous, they told him, in fact, they were “harmless.” If we just poured water down our basement drains, maybe even ran water for a while, certainly opened several windows (conveniently in October, when the weather was cooling off and natural gas bills are higher than ever) the smell would go away.

We went in and turned on faucets and dumped big pots of water in the basement trap drain, but the vapors were still unbearable and headache-producing 20 minutes later, so we returned to my mother’s for the night. My husband called the fire department and told them he defied anyone to actually come into the house and leave still calling the fumes “harmless,” but all they did was apologize and say that we should have been warned.

The next day the place still stunk. We kept dumping water, running water, turning on fans despite the crisp fall air and calling various Columbus city departments to find out what exactly the name of the chemical they were using in the sewer was. We were bounced from the fire department to the city water and sewer department to some other department called “new construction,” who finally told us that it was styrene, and they would be using it about one more week. Everyone also apologized that we weren’t warned, but they hadn’t expected it to travel a block up to us. They added that we could keep a rag in the trap drain to help stop the smell.

Styrene didn’t sound exactly “harmless” to me, so I made further calls to a national center on toxic substances, saying I was concerned for myself and my 4 and a half month old baby. I received a call from a man the next morning telling me to call the health department because they should be able to measure the amount of styrene in the air. I could take the baby to the doctor to see if there was any neurological damage, but styrene comes and goes from the human body so quickly it would be hard to measure. He also just said to document everything that happened for possible future liability and then told me I should worry about Bird Flu instead.

I talked to the health department and they brought us a fax with facts on styrene while we were out at the zoo to escape the lingering smell.

It’s now been two weeks since the original experience, and we’ve mostly gotten the smell under control, but I’m nervous about what the effects of this really were. There were three days in which just checking out the place gave me a headache, and we’ve all had sniffles for days.

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