Experts to sample air at apartment building Locust House dwellers complain of foul odor

December 05, 1997|By Mary Gail Hare | Mary Gail Hare,SUN STAFF

Responding to residents' complaints of an intermittent foul odor, the state Department of the Environment will collect and test air samples at Locust House in Westminster.

Many of the 100 senior and disabled residents of the federally subsidized housing complex have reported the odor in their apartments and in common areas of the seven-story building, county inspectors said.

An independent air-quality consultant inspected the building two months ago, but reported no problems with the air circulating in the 17-year-old building. But residents have persisted with their concerns, prompting management to call MDE.

An MDE canister to collect air arrived at the building this week. Since then, the manager has received no reports of bad air.

"The problem is it is really following no pattern," said Greg Keller, county livability code inspector. "We need to get a systematic view of how it is traveling into the building. It appears to originate on the outside of the building, maybe less than 5 feet from it."

Keller called the odor "very strong whenever it is present."

Rentals at Locust House are subsidized by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development through the state Department of Housing and Community Development.

"No identifiable source for an odor was found within Locust House," Harry Messner, asset manager for the state housing department, wrote to resident Mike Melsheimer last month. "Efforts to identify the source and the substance of the odor are continuing, with the help of residents and staff."

Construction of the brick building on the site of a former distillery on Locust Street near Westminster City Hall began in 1979. Melsheimer is afraid the odor is coming from rotting drums buried long ago on the property.

"This was all fill area and there could be pockets of gas," Melsheimer said.

The theory merits investigating, but the best assessment will come from tests on gas captured in the canister, Keller said.

"Once that is done, we can figure out what it is and where it is coming from," Keller said.

Loretta Cleary, 76, who has lived at Locust House nearly 17 years, has detected the odor "every so often" in the past few years and has always reported it to the manager.

"The smell is erratic but definitely here," Cleary said. "I have smelled it in my apartment, in the hallways and in [the manager's] office."

Whenever the odor is present, Cleary has trouble with itchy, watery eyes. Her husband, before he died three years ago, had the same complaints, she said. She compares the smell to sewer gas.

"The manager is saying he was not made aware until now, but we have been sending letters about it for several years," Cleary said.

Etta Myers, 54, moved to the building in July. She reported a foul smell in the fifth-floor hallway Nov. 19, the second time she had detected a smell like sewage.

"They need to take care of this because we are all worried it could affect us," Myers said. "A lot of people living here have a hard time breathing and many are on oxygen."

Marci Rubin, the Locust House manager employed by Humphrey Cos. of Silver Spring, which owns the building, wrote to tenants Nov. 17. She assured them she was aware of the complaints and detailed the results of recent tests of the building's air.

"This odor does not appear to be coming from inside the building," Rubin wrote. "If anyone smells anything out of the ordinary, please contact the office and have a staff member present to smell the odor reported."

She attached the survey, conducted by Scientific Control of Edgewood in October. Crews had inspected hallways and common areas, sampling for carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, fungi bio-aerosols and several other gases. The company also forwarded samples for independent lab tests.

"We could find nothing that would indicate, from an overall perspective, the need for further testing at this time," Peter R. Steinmetz, environmental inspector, reported.

The inspector did report high particulate counts, but attributed that to cigarette smoke.

Ralph E. Green, the county's chief of permits and inspections, said building management is doing all it can to resolve the issue.

"The environmental survey to determine any potential danger came back clean," Green said. "We have to play a waiting game now. The only thing we can do is capsulate the smell and see what is going on."

Keller continues to respond to residents' complaints and has studied the report.

"They have given me assurances that this is not creating an immediate problem," Keller said.

Pub Date: 12/05/97

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