Rental properties and VOCs

Jun 19, 2020

What’s a renter to do?  Imagine that you just rented a new apartment or leased commercial space.  Now imagine that after being in the property for a little while that something doesn’t feel quite right.  It might be that there is a funny odor.  Sometimes you might feel a little off healthwise, but you start to feel better when you are away.  Sometimes you or your family or coworkers may feel seriously sick.  Does it have something to do with the rental property?  Or could it have something to do with volatile organic compounds (VOCs)?  VOCs are chemical compounds that can off-gas into the air and cause an odor, or for some, create an illness.  Let’s see what can happen with rental properties and VOCs.

Rental properties and big problems

In the past, I have worked with both renters and landlords to try and figure out if there is an indoor air issue in a rental.  Landlords want to limit their liability. Renters want to verify that their space is safe to occupy.  So how do we figure this out?

Questions, Questions, Questions

The first step in any assessment is to ask basic questions.  What is the issue?  Is it an odor?  If so, is the odor strongest at a particular time of day or in a particular room?  Does it occur during certain weather conditions?  Is the odor constant or intermittent? Do the occupants feel sick while in the property, but start to feel better when away?

Answering these basic questions help us pinpoint the issue.

The case of the stinking furniture 

In one case regarding rental properties and VOCs, our client occupied a large warehouse that stored rental furniture to help stage homes for sale.  The client started receiving complaints from her clients about a “petroleum” smell embedded in some of the furniture.  Ironically, this space was previously used to store boat motors.

To see if there were any cause and effect from the prior use of the building, we tested the area for volatile organic compounds.  These volatile organic compounds (VOCs) can off-gas into the air and oftentimes have a perceivable odor.  We collected an air sample onto a sorbent tube and had it analyzed by a laboratory by using gas chromatography/mass spectrometry.  These laboratory-based methods have the advantage of identifying individual VOCs, so we can see if an individual compound (or compounds) is the culprit.

Afterward, we discovered that many of the most prevalent VOCs in our test of the warehouse were found in gasoline.  This provided the client documented evidence that the odors on the furniture could have come from the past building use.  

I am so sick! Is it a VOC?

Some renters feel immediately ill the moment they enter into their new home.  In one case, we were able to perform a sorbent tube test (like that mentioned above).   This showed that certain chemicals used in the building materials and finishes were extremely elevated in air samples.  The client was able to use this report in court to prove that the apartment was unhealthy and make it possible for her to break her lease.  


Sometimes the odors or health issues may not be coming from your unit, but from a neighboring unit.  I once performed an assessment in a series of apartments in a highrise.  The neighbors were complaining of a terrible odor making its way into their units.  The source was eventually found to be in a unit that was undergoing extensive remodeling.  The workers were using a stain on the floor that was reportedly not approved for use in the United States. 

It is important to observe if the materials used by contractors and the resulting VOCs are considered safe.  If possible we think that it is a good idea to check the brand and manufacturer and see what dangerous chemicals, if any, are found in them.  Manufacturer’s Safety Data Sheets (SDS) can be found for almost any chemical product.   It is best to use “Low” or “No” VOC materials within the property. You might be able to find this information in the SPOT database.

Rental properties and VOCs – Conclusion

When it comes to air quality disputes between renters and landlords, it is usually best to solicit the advice of an indoor air quality consultant.  When the dispute is particularly acrimonious, it can be helpful for each side to have its own professional examine the property and perform the proper testing.  This can provide scientific evidence that a rental may or may not have acceptable indoor air quality. 

Remember!  When testing rental properties for VOCs, the testing professional is not a lawyer.  When working in these cases, the professional doing the testing has an obligation only to the paying client about the results.  If the landlord is paying to have the testing done, this does not mean that the renter has the right to that information.  However, if you are concerned about the indoor air quality of your rental, by all means, hire a professional yourself. This will help bring peace of mind.