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Continued headaches-no one can figure it out

megr Member Posts: 2
We recently bought a home and it’s been basically uninhabitable since we moved in. I have another post with additional details, but below is a basic timeline and overview of what is happening. Any thoughts or ideas appreciated! 

June-July- prior to sale septic system was worked on due to the kitchen sink and laundry running into a cesspool in the lawn. Health dept made them tie these into the existing septic prior to closing. This was done by running a separate line into the existing septic. Passed the title 5 inspection. Happy to send that if needed. 

August-September- moved in and started noticing strong odors mostly at night/or after running the laundry. Continually got worse. Tried putting automatic vents on laundry and kitchen sink as they were not vented properly and suction from new septic line was pulling traps dry. Still getting odors so opened walls and found open vent stack.

October-January- re-did all plumbing in the house. Gutted the kitchen, bathroom and second floor half bath. Raised the vent stack to higher on the roof as before it was below the skylight and soffits. Replaced boiler due to issues with zoning done by previous owner and carbon monoxide leaking. 

January- March- moved back in and still getting headaches and burning feeling in my nose. Had IAQ assessment done and found high levels of VOC’s along the front wall of the house starting in the basement and moving up to the living room and above into the bedroom. Also found high levels of carbon dioxide throughout the house. Both we were told were double what is recommended for schools. Carbon monoxide was very small. Lab results emailed. To remédiate VOC’s we exhausted air from the basement while removing any visible insulation from the front wall and any other areas of the basement. Sealed the crawl space with access to the septic with plastic and sealed all wood and concrete with mexeseal and hard seal from green building supply. Also exhausted air from living room along the front wall.
Also took the air intake from the boiler which was previously drawing air from inside the basement and tried moving it outside. We also scrubbed and vacuumed radiators and woodstove in living room where odors and headaches are the worst. 

Still getting headaches and nausea, mainly in living room. Had a family member get a rash on neck twice after having been in the living room. Sometimes smelling sewer gasses and what smells like the exhaust from the boiler, especially on cold nights all throughout the house. 


  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 21,090
    Well, you already know the level one answer -- you still have an indoor air quality problem. Easy enough to say, but very hard to diagnose. Which you also have already figured out.

    My suspicion is that you have more than one problem, however.

    Sewer gas itself, unless it is in rather high concentration, may be sickening but rarely causes either headaches or nausea. The one thing there which you want to be very very aware of is any smell like rotten eggs. That's hydrogen sulfide, and can be quite harmful and does sometimes show up in sewer gas -- but it's not uncommon.

    All of which is not to say that you shouldn't make an effort to find and fix that problem, and the best way to do that is to smoke test the sewer system. Your department of health may be able to do that, but some sewer and septic contractors can also do it (some can't, and some say they can but are bozos -- good luck). It's a simple test, really, in which access is gained to the inlet of the septic tank and a smoke bomb put in there, then a blower is used to blow the smoke back through the system. The only place it should show up is the roof vents. The test isn't fool proof -- a small leak may not show up -- but can be illuminating.

    How is the boiler vented? If not through a chimney, the exhaust can be smelled (by some people) under certain wind conditions, but not others. If it's vented through a chimney, it would be uncommon to smell it at all (particularly gas; an out of adjustment oil burner can sometimes be noticed). But the process of elimination there -- now that the weather is getting warmer -- is to simply turn the boiler off and leave it off for a while. The threat there is carbon monoxide, of course, and I'd very strongly recommend that you get a low level (not big box) carbon monoxide detector capable of recording down to at least 5 ppm or lower, and place it for a while in the living room. Sesnorcon makes a usable one: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B00OZU455C/ref=sspa_dk_detail_1?psc=1&pd_rd_i=B00OZU455C&pd_rd_w=Cuhbe&pf_rd_p=4269e1a0-a218-4fbd-9748-1cd337d2f2a5&pd_rd_wg=ZBJDG&pf_rd_r=9B1JF1X2NQ099A0SY4C3&pd_rd_r=b702d8bc-2a99-4269-95e7-e8ad0810a290&smid=A2BELRG0H44KIK&spLa=ZW5jcnlwdGVkUXVhbGlmaWVyPUExVVJSV1Q0TFlOR1JKJmVuY3J5cHRlZElkPUEwNjM3ODM5MU5NWkcwMFJSM0tKVyZlbmNyeXB0ZWRBZElkPUEwMzAyNTI5MkxYRVVaTVFGOTA1RyZ3aWRnZXROYW1lPXNwX2RldGFpbCZhY3Rpb249Y2xpY2tSZWRpcmVjdCZkb05vdExvZ0NsaWNrPXRydWU= You will also want to check around the boiler and any other fuel burning appliance -- including the wood stove, if it's in use. Low level carbon monoxide poisoning can cause the health problems you mention -- even as low as 2 or 3 ppm, if the exposure is maintained.

    The indoor air quality in the living room area etc. suggests a continuing source of volatile organic carbons or some kind, and this could well be the actual source of the health complaints. What that is, however, and where it may be located I would not care to even venture a guess, except to note that certain older foam in place insulation formulations (no longer in use, thank goodness!) did have problems and did outgas for months or years. More to the point, it is exceedingly difficult to actually measure low enough levels of VOCs in air. The equipment is very expensive and of limited portability, and takes extensive training of the operators (read: much money).

    I have to admit at this point that I'd have to evaluate: is chasing this down worth it? I have not seen the house, obviously, and other than a deduction that it is in Massachusetts somewhere ("Title 5") I know nothing about it -- but unless the structure itself has intrinsic value, I'd seriously wonder if it isn't time to call in the bulldozers...
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • megr
    megr Member Posts: 2
    Lol thank you! I’ve thought about throwing in the towel several times. I’m not attached to staying here other than just not having any good options of where else to go. I also suspect it’s multiple problems. Is there no other way to locate and tell what the source of the vocs might be? I will try the carbon monoxide device. 
  • kevink1955
    kevink1955 Member Posts: 85
    @Jamie Hall
    How would a smoke bomb in the septic inlet show up at the roof vents, I would think the house trap would stop that or am I missing something ??
  • megr
    megr Member Posts: 2
    We actually did a smoke and peppermint test at the beginning before replaced all of the plumbing including the venting. I don’t think there is anything inside the house at this point since it is all brand new, but I guess it’s possible. It smells more to me like the septic gasses are dropping when it’s cold? I don’t smell that as much as I smell the boiler exhaust and the Unidentified  odor in the livingroom
  • Larry Weingarten
    Larry Weingarten Member Posts: 2,955
    Hi, This would only be a stop-gap measure, but pressurizing the living space with clean air could make it livable and buy time for you to get to the cause of the odor. This could be done with a small box fan in a window, or??? Also, there are "tracer gas" tests that might help you to identify the source. I'm just throwing that out as something I've heard of but know little about. Might be worth looking into.

    Yours, Larry
  • bobcat1974
    bobcat1974 Member Posts: 4
    Where does the boiler vent? If it’s in the chimney is there a liner? Perhaps the bricks are not in good shape and the flue gas is entering the living space. Does your living room have a fireplace? Usually there are separate passages but the mortar could be compromised and there is crossover.  Dan always says high pressure goes to low pressure! Is there something in your house that keep the living space at a negative pressure? Ie. a whole house fan or radon vent? 

    HVACNUT Member Posts: 5,023
    Can you get records or history on the property? What was there before the house?
    Deep soil samples and ground gas probes maybe?
    Has a blower door test been done? Drafty house with a factory or processing plant nearby? Just throwing stuff out there. 
    Where's the water table?
    It could be a poltergeist. 
  • Jamie Hall
    Jamie Hall Member Posts: 21,090

    @Jamie Hall
    How would a smoke bomb in the septic inlet show up at the roof vents, I would think the house trap would stop that or am I missing something ??

    Only if the is a house trap. Which is not always the case...
    Br. Jamie, osb
    Building superintendent/caretaker, 7200 sq. ft. historic house museum with dependencies in New England
  • Jon_blaney
    Jon_blaney Member Posts: 304
    I have oder problems with my HE cloths washer. Have to leave the top open or I can get sewer smell. Just a though.
  • Jon_blaney
    Jon_blaney Member Posts: 304
    Do you have a steam system? Could something be excaping from the boiler system vents. Maybe exhaust gas is getting into the steam and being vented into the house.
  • Zman
    Zman Member Posts: 7,446
    You need to start a more strategic method of troubleshooting.
    • Contact a good IAQ hygienist and set up a test for mold and allergens. Does everyone in the home have the same reactions or are you especially sensitive to something in the home?
    • Get a good quality CO meter that will record the actual levels over time.
    • Find a contractor that owns a machine designed to put smoke in your sewer pipes. Have them plug the roof vents and truely test your sewer waste and vent system.
    What are your measured CO2 levels?
    "If you can't explain it simply, you don't understand it well enough"
    Albert Einstein
  • Jon_blaney
    Jon_blaney Member Posts: 304
    Floor drain?
    HVACNUT Member Posts: 5,023
    I have oder problems with my HE cloths washer. Have to leave the top open or I can get sewer smell. Just a though.
    That's mildew growth. Leave the door open always when not in use and wipe down the door gasket frequently. 
  • HomerJSmith
    HomerJSmith Member Posts: 2,143
    If you could post the odor so we could all smell it, we could give you a more definitive answer.

    I'm going to approach this with a different perspective and ask you some questions.

    Are you on a well or municipal water? Do you live in an area where Fracking has or is occurring?

    Take a clean mayonnaise jar and half fill it with tap water and cap it tightly. In 3-4 days go outside and open the jar and smell it. Is that the odor that you have in the house?

    In other words is it the water supply that is the culprit?
    HVACNUTMaxMercyBoonAlan (California Radiant) Forbes
  • Crissie
    Crissie Member Posts: 132
    Living Room - this has the wood burning stove. Hopefully you are not using that stove. Can you seal it off to make certain the wind isn't back drafting through the chimney into the house? Tear the drywall out in the living room, it might be mold or some sort of insulation. Check the attic over the living room and whatever is underneath it. Is the attic air sealed? get rid of any carpet in living room area, those have huge VOC's. Some new carpet has been known to make all residents ill.
    Is there a possibility you have a crack in a main sewer line in the ground?
    If you are on a slope, sometime wind can suck air from the roof plumbing vent, which will suck air from the septic that might be the sewer.
    If you have a negative pressure in your house (not enough fresh air coming in) you might be pulling air / gases up through the foundation.
    Consider calling an IEP. IEP radio.com is a great resource.
  • pedmec
    pedmec Member Posts: 718
    this reminds me of a story i saw on american justice many years ago. couple moved to texas in a huge mansion. dream house. didn't take long before they all started getting sick. house was loaded with mold. i believe he had a small area that had mold in it but the remediation company had put the couple on the back burner for a little while. in the meantime it spread thru out the whole house and basically condemned the house
  • Dave Carpentier
    Dave Carpentier Member Posts: 501
    Wow, what a nightmare.
    All you can do is eliminate one factor at a time.

    Checking the water quality would be good (is it a well ?), so you could eliminate that.
    Iron bacteria can leave quite a smell. Is the toilet tank full of black sludge ?
    Check both hot and cold water for smells.

    Plumbing was redone, so hopefully you can scratch off venting issues.
    How about grey water pooled under the house from the old laundry/sink drain (cesspool) system ?

    30+ yrs in telecom outside plant.
    Currently in building maintenance.
  • Hollywood111
    Hollywood111 Member Posts: 6
    edited September 2022
    Please STOP!!! Here me out: I DO understand the issues with the traps and the sceptic issue, and all the Please Stop, My .02. vent (Vac) breakers, Plus the odd smells. I do appreciate Jamie's input, but as a former Sewage worker and proud of it but now well qualified HVACR person, I DO believe you are "DOUBLETRAPPED" to your septic tank if applicable. All of your waste appliances sink toilet slop sink etc all have traps. Something is drawing out your traps from bottom to upper levels. That could be a "natural trap in the piping before the septic tank, in which I do not believe there should be NONE! Atmospheric from the foundation up to all sinks, but other than that, NO "SUCTION"!!!! An unintended trap in the septic system MAY cause this scenario.... Duning day and night hours volume in tanks can change putting hydraulic strain on lines leading to homes. Usually not an issue because Vac breakers are located outside where nobody sees. or smells. A sag into a particular home undetected ( yea I know it was inspected) can give this hydraulic action that draws your trap, or traps clean. Ever have a toilet that when you look at it the bowl is 1/4 full? Same principal. Your bottom floor, level wise, will be the first to clear temporarily until you fill it again by flushing or using the sink.
    Happens at Nite because the Hydraulic action as little as it is does not affect the home as someone is sometimes using water here or there.

    Extreme test: Cut your main drain, hope it's PVC (or all bets are off) Add
    'Tee Gate Valve" Shut it down for 1 or 2 nights. That will tell you. Plus, you can keep the tee installed....
    My .02

    Hello Jamie from about 14 years ago. Last used as Holywood only because I could not add the extra L at the time.,...LOL... Peace.