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FORMALDEHYDE, ROTTING WOOD COULD BE CULPRIT

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Question - I bought a 60-year-old house with aluminum siding and plaster walls. It had an odor that I think was associated with the previous owner and what he kept in the house. I replaced all appliances, kitchen cabinets and other things that normally would not need replacing, and the odor went away - for a while. Then it came back, not as strong as before, but still detectable. It is a sweetish odor, sort of day-after alcohol breath. I am stumped on what to do next. Any ideas? D.H., Medway, Mass.

Answer - Well, yes, but only ideas. Formaldehyde has a sweetish odor, and if any of the items you removed were made of particleboard, it could have emitted formaldehyde. Not much, but enough to smell. Some people might be able to smell it, some might not. And some might be allergic to it. Some plywoods also can emit formaldehyde. Alternatively, it might be urea-formaldehyde insulation in the walls. This insulation was foamed into the walls in many houses in the 1970s, and if it was done right, there is no problem. But some installations were faulty, and these emitted a lot of formaldehyde. The faulty installations caused Massachusetts to ban such insulation, and to have it removed if the house was sold. Later the whole country followed suit.

To find out if there is U-F in the walls, remove the double plug from an electrical outlet box (turn off the power first), and inspect the walls through the holes in the outlet box. If necessary, remove the box for a better look. If what is in the walls is a firm, beige foam, it probably is U-F. In that case it is best removed, although you might get some help in having it removed because the seller of your house was obliged to inform you that U-F was in the walls.

Another possible source of the odor is decaying wood, and there is a fair chance of decaying wood because of the aluminum siding, which may have allowed condensation of water behind it, rotting the sheathing. Checking for decayed wood is a little tougher than sleuthing for U-F in the walls. You may have to have a bit of the siding removed, or go into the walls from the inside by making a hole in the plaster to see what's going on with the sheathing boards, which are on the outside of the wall, directly behind the aluminum siding or directly behind any old wood siding (clapboards or shingles).

If neither of these suggestions pan out, then it beats the heck out of the handyman.

Question - I have dust all over the place. The house is 2,000 square feet on one floor, heated and cooled by a heat pump. Wool carpet covers all floors but baths, porch and kitchen. Filters are in the attic; the return is cleaned regularly. We use an electrostatic air filter. The dryer is vented to the outdoors. The dust is horrendous in the winter with heat on, not in summer with A/C going. It can't be the carpet, because there is little or no dust in summer. I sneeze for 20 to 30 minutes every morning. Am I allergic to this house? Diana Custis, Painter, Va.

Answer - Dust is dust, and people are people, and never the twain shall part, with apologies to Rudyard Kipling. The point is that dust is a fact of life and there is little anyone can do about it. In fact, you have done everything right. Your special filters are probably helping, but not enough. I think it is because the air is drier in winter when the heat is on than in summer when the A/C is running.

The dust is less of a problem in summer because the air is more humid, and the humidity tends to act as a damper to the dust, laying it down or keeping it from rising and blowing around so much. The only answer that I can give is to humidify the house in winter. You can buy console-type humidifiers; two might be needed in your large, one-story house.

Since the carpet is there in the summer as well as in the winter, I agree that the carpet is not causing the problem. Keep the rug well-vacuumed, and vacuum as often as you can.

You might consider having the ducts cleaned. There are duct cleaners in most large cities. Some cleaners will not only clean the ducts, but also line them with a special coating designed to hold dust.