Smelly floors

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Q: We moved into to new place a little over three months ago. The wood floors were refinished before we moved in. The day we moved in we noticed a strong odour that smelled like varnish. The odour was so strong that it made us sick. I experienced a rash, chest pains, cramps, and nausea. We thought the odour would go away in time. It has been over three months and the odour is still with us. It comes and goes, but it is strong about two out of every six hours. The landlord told me that the guys who did the floors used an oil based polyurethane. Is this normal? Should floors be gassing after this long? Sometimes the floor is slick and oily? Is that normal?

A: I had a call from one of my customers last year, that after 5 days his finish still smelled bad and they were getting a brown film on their socks from it. I went to see, and the odour was actually coming from carpet they had installed. The floor finish, as expected, was good and dry, and a good guess would be, 90% cured. It is normal to take up to several weeks for full cure of omu, but after a few days, any “off gassing” is really minute and I don’t think the average person would even detect any odour at all.

If the finish was not dry, the smell would not come and go. You mention that sometimes the floors seem oily and slick. On some very old floors that have been waxed heavily in the past, there can be a reaction with solvents in the finish activating the wax. However, this would definitely not make your floors slick. Rather, they would be sticky and a real mess. This sounds more like an oil type cleaner someone is using on your floor. Not a good thing to use. I can’t explain what this smell is, but I suspect it is not coming from the floor finish. If it was not dry, it would be very obvious by the stickiness of it.

Similar Q: We have oak hardwood floors which were sanded and stained back in early march. The house still smells! How can I get rid of this odour? Please help!

A: I’m not even sure how to address this question. Regardless of which type of finish was used any and all off-gassing is generally fully accomplished within 24 hours. It would be impossible to apply additional coats of finish if this process was not completed since doing so would wrinkle the previous coating. All finishes I’m aware of dry by solvent leaving the film.

I feel very confident in saying whatever you are smelling is not coming from the floor finish. It is normal and recommended that when the finish is dry enough to walk on the windows be opened for a few hours to allow fresh air into the rooms.

I’ve had a couple of complaints such as yours over the years and as expected when I went back to check out the floors I could smell nothing from the finish. In one house it was new carpeting up the stairway which was off-gassing.

I did listen to one doctor in an interview who mentioned persons who have strong reaction to even the slightest exposure to solvents or odors such as walking past a flower shop. In his opinion such individuals are very likely suffering from toxic over load from long term exposure to other substances.

So, I’m sorry. I don’t have much for you. If it is the floor finish solvent, where is the solvent? It can’t be coming from the coating which has long since fully dried and cured. Perhaps these small containers you can buy at building centers, ‘odor eaters’ wherein you open the lid and leave them sit that way would help.

Related Q: I had my floors stained and refinished. Oil polyurethane was used and the smell was horrible. It has been almost 2 months and the smell from the floor is still lingering in the house. I can smell it more when I’m walking on the floor and if I put my nose to it it’s really strong. Please I need to understand if this is normal and if the smell persist for a long time.

A: The situation you describe seems impossible. Here is why. These finishes dry by evaporation of the solvent from the resins. This usually takes several hours to overnight. If the solvents are still in the film and an additional coat of finish is attempted it will cause the previous coat to wrinkle. Normally, after the finish is applied and has set up windows can be opened for several hours to allow in fresh air. You can get this small container of an odour eater product at Home Depot. I’ve been told by customers that they work very well. If this smell was from solvent in the air in your house you couldn’t stay in there. Your eyes would be burning and you would likely feel rather ill.

Follow-up Q: Thanks so much for your response. The floor looks horrible, but the guy who did it will not take responsibility for it. It has streak marks as well. It looks like it has rigid waves when you look at it from afar. Close up it looks normal. I’m still smelling something, maybe it’s the stain. Because the smell is coming from the floor. I’m just so confused.

A: You’re welcome. If he used a satin type finish which most people, including myself like then some finishes of this sheen can streak. It is an issue with the way the flattener in the finish disburses in the film. I’ve been using Poloplaz Primero for quite a few years now and I’ve not had it streak ever.

As to the odour, you haven’t suffered any of the issue I mentioned have you? I was listening to a doctor being interviewed on the radio while I was driving a couple of years ago. He was talking about people who have reactions to a slight exposure to a smell. In his view such ones have had toxic exposure over a period of time which has built up to such a level they are now sensitized to it. I’ve had work related exposure for decades. I do try to limit it. So far I haven’t detected any issue. I mention this because you aren’t the first to ask me about the smell, even after months of the work being completed. Even with waterbourne finishes. I had one customer call me once two weeks after I was finished the work on his floors. He was complaining it still smells. I thought about it for the evening and just thought this cannot be. I went back and knew immediately what the smell was. He had new carpet installed up the stairway. It was that which was giving off an odor. I’m more concerned about the off gassing we can’t smell.

Follow-up: Thanks again for your reply. The only health problems I had at the beginning when the work was done were some coughing and wheezing in my chest. But I’m recovered now. I do not get watery eyes when I’m in the room, it is just the smell is annoying. I smell it especially when I first walk in; even my girls smell it, but they don’t complain of anything. I guess the smell is more of a stain smell, I’m hoping, I’ll wait it out few more weeks and hope the smell disappears. If not I’m going to have to rip out the floor and install new hardwood.

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2 comments on “Smelly floors

  1. Follow up Q #1: It is not coming from cleaner, we only have used a broom. Most people that come by smell the odour very strongly. The odour is coming from the floor. There must be someone out there who has heard of this.

    A: If you really think so, why don’t you ask the company that sanded the floors to come in for an inspection? If the finish was not dry, it would be obvious. You would have a sticky mess.

    Follow up Q #2: It is not “a sticky mess” but it does not appear to have fully cured. I have talked to chemists who say this can happen. The flooring guys don’t seem to know much about chemicals.

    A: Something like that can happen, but it is always caused by a contaminant that reacts with the solvents in the floor finish. For example, if a floor had been waxed for years, with the wax getting deep into the grain and between the boards, the mineral spirit solvent will soften the wax and cause what we would describe as wax bleed. This would result in dull areas along board edges, and in severe cases, dull areas on the surface of the boards where the polyurethane has actually been repelled by the activated wax. These areas would remain slightly sticky, until or if they dry. You haven’t described anything of this nature to me.

    In another example, a plank floor with large bevelled edges is re finished but the bevels were not scraped clean. This floor is stained and finished and beads of stain keep rising up from the bevels. This would have to be constantly scraped off until it all dried. But again, nothing in your description fits this scenario either.

    Finishes also have recommended spread rates. If a person were to double up on the amount of finish used, for example, by applying 2 gallons to 400 sq. ft. instead of 1 gallon, it would take much longer to fully cure. Probably a number of weeks.

    If you feel you are being poisoned by this, you can have the floors re sanded and finished with a water borne product. I must say, you would not want to be around this stuff while it is drying either. Not because it smells bad, but it also contains some interesting chemicals that have all sorts of health warnings attached. At least it generally cures much faster than oil borne finishes.

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