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Harmful fumes can come from your neighbors

This common air vent can allow toxic fumes from neighbors to penetrate your apartment
This common air vent can allow toxic fumes from neighbors to penetrate your apartment
VL Jackson

You may, as many others, believe that when you have central air conditioning and heating, you’ve got nothing to worry about as far as indoor air quality is concerned. You are able to prevent any foul odors from the outdoors from entering your abode, whether they be diesel fumes, a slaughterhouse upwind of your place, or a neighbor’s BBQ that provides way too much temptation. Guess again.

The mere fact you do have the vents and ducts provided in order to convey cool and warm air into your apartment sets you up for inhalation of whatever else is circulating in building. It can be merely dust (and the accompanying dust mites) which can irritate your air passages and cause allergies and trigger asthma attacks. There are, however, in our modern malaise, far more insidious fumes that may be introduced into your supposedly safe domicile. Among the possible invaders are whatever your neighbors may be using, both licit and far from it.

Cooking odors are the most frequent sources of complaint—many people hate the smell of fish, for example, while those preparing this food often don’t even notice its pungency due to being used to it. Onions and garlic, too, are repulsive to some, and the smell of curry is strong enough to nauseate those unfamiliar with it on a frequent basis. Scents from such natural elements, however, are usually not actually harmful unless someone has an allergic reaction to them.

What is actually dangerous and becoming far more prevalent in urban dwellings emanates from illegal substances. Crack cocaine, synthetic marijuana (often called “skunk” on the street due to its distinctive stench) and crystal meth are the most popular of the drugs that contribute their toxicity to others who are innocent "bysmellers" (ie., a bystander who smells the fumes). It’s far worse than a matter of simply not caring for the odors involved; the chemicals put out by these substances can do much physical harm. Some suggest merely burning incense or candles (as if that will somehow detoxify the fumes!) but masking odors won’t change their chemical content or how they affect you.

Think of the effects of second-hand tobacco smoke--another pollutant frequently invading from neighboring units; we know this can be more deadly to those inhaling it than direct smokers due to the fact it is unfiltered. Many lung cancer victims die who have been subjected to sidestream smoke without ever lighting up themselves. In a similar way, those continually breathing in the products of illegal substances “enjoyed” by those around them suffer the consequences without being directly involved.

That is why you’ll frequently see police and health department tape around houses and apartment buildings where meth labs have existed, whether or not there has been (as is often the case) a fire on the premises. The location is so toxic it is condemned. Therefore it makes sense that all measures should be taken to avoid the contamination of adjacent apartments in buildings where residents are abusing certain substances.

Yet the management in most buildings will not act even when residents voice concern over such conditions. They often will not believe that the fumes can travel between units. (See for information on this issue.) In other instances they mistakenly believe that unless they see drugs being used in front of them, nothing can be done about it. This is often backed up by the fact that police rarely bother with a case of a single user with a joint, for example, as opposed to a grow operation or major trafficking on a site. Granted, if they acted on all complaints, they’d likely have to work double shifts. Rules set by apartment management and local housing authorities can, however, be enforced where criminal activities on the premises are concerned. It’s all a matter of management wanting to actually get involved, and that, unfortunately, is the basic problem.

Aside from risking carbon monoxide poisoning by plugging up all your vents, keeping your air conditioning and heating turned off all year long, and sealing the doors and windows, you also can cause fans to overheat, resulting in fires. Individual table-top sized air purifiers and filters may be a bit costly for some on either fixed or low income, as the filters require frequent changing, but your health may be dependent on this solution. Outside of moving to a location where you can guarantee no one around you will pollute your sanctuary, there aren’t a lot of adequate alternatives. The best method, then, of dealing with the problem is to rat out the abusers. Anonymously tip off any and all civic authorities, housing authorities, parole officers, anyone you can find that will deal with those you know, beyond doubt, are smoking dope. Then let them go to work. Once the low-life types are removed, you can breathe easy, in more ways than one.

Want to learn more about substance abuse? Read Mike Velardo’s Examiner articles:

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