Wednesday, April 13, 2016

There's a problem in my current rental unit with ventilation/air flow. It's been intermittent—but tolerable—and back in February became consistent and intolerable. One of the units below us has smokers. I don't smoke. I have smoke allergies. And in a rational world, someone else smoking in another unit wouldn't have impact on my life.

The problem is the smell started coming up out of our first floor closet. Then it was in the kitchen closet and the cupboards on the floor and then it was in the master bedroom's closet and my room—the closet and a corner by my desk. I've got tote bags that didn't reek of smoke in January, and hasn't left my room since, but smells like a chainsmoker borrowed it to carry tobacco.

Through a lot of back and forth—and also some misguided attempts to help without addressing the actual problem from our landlord and property manager—my housemates finally made it clear to the smokers that they need to take it outside until we can sort out why we're getting the smell of their cigarettes in our unit.

It's a month later, and most of what I own still smells like tobacco.

Basically, the smell should've gone away when people stopped smoking inside and it didn't. For a while the smoke smell decreased significantly—thanks neighbours—and in its place was this other weird-ass smell like bad fabreeze. It smells a lot like the odour treatment spray in the garbage rooms in the complex's garage.

My mom's been asking me every time she's phoned since February why I sound like I have a cold, because whatever this is irritates my throat and my eyes. I've spent the past two months congested—but only when I'm home.

#

Last weekend, Saturday night, one of my housemates went to the hospital on a stretcher because the irritant was so strong in our unit that we were all lightheaded and lethargic. She has asthma, which makes all of this a much bigger issue, and in addition to my symptoms was also confused. A knock on my door woke me so that she could let me know—in the anxious-calm voice of someone who is knocking on a sleeping person's door at 2:30 AM—that 911 had been called and Toronto Fire was going to be arriving soon, so we needed to clear our unit.

And in an equally anxious-calm voice, I may have replied: "Ok, I just need to put on my coat."

I remember putting on jeans and my coat and going outside. Thinking how much easier it was to breathe—and how nice the cold air was because it made me feel less groggy. More awake. Everything was very calm, because I was upset but not really feeling anything. I knew I was awake, but it didn't feel real.

The firemen and the hazmat teams walked through the unit and looked at things and had little handheld machines. A couple of the firemen couldn't smell anything, but one of the hazmat team could.

That was good because it's hard to describe a smell to someone in a helpful way when you have to explain the effects it has on you versus the scent because you've been congested for the past month and often don't smell it anymore. You just know it's there because your eyes are burning and your throat hurts and your ears keeping popping.

That's how I spent from 2:30 AM to 3:30 AM on Saturday—trying to describe a smell to firemen and then a hazmat team. Being asked calmly by an EMT if I could locate my friend's wallet and health care card because they were going to take her in the ambulance to Toronto Western. Having the same EMT calmly ask me if I was all right. Then a fireman came up and asked if the smell smelled like disinfectant and I had to explain how I couldn't smell anything but I knew it was there because my eyes were burning. He suggested that if I had somewhere else to go then maybe I might want to do so.

"We have seven weeks left on our lease," I told him. "We're trying to find out what is causing this."

And then he asked every question every one of us has been asking for the past month, and I got frustrated because it wasn't helping—even though he was genuinely trying to help—but at least I was feeling something again.

It is a heart-wrenching expression professionals whose jobs are to help people be safe get on their faces when they realize they aren't going to be able to do a good job for you. Not through any failing of their own, but because the situation shouldn't be happening in the first place.

Then he assured me that the little machine had not found anything toxic it was built to detect and it was safe to stay in the unit.

By 4:00 AM the living room was full of the smell again.

#

Here are things I never want to have to say to anyone again:
"I got woke up and told the firemen were on their way."
"All I needed to know tonight is that if I go to sleep I'll wake back up. That's really helpful."

Here is something I never want to have to say to a friend again:
"Don't apologize. I'd rather lose sleep than be dead."

And a thing I am beyond fucking tired of saying to people over the past two weeks:
"We don't know how it's getting in here. We don't know why it only became a problem recently."

#

Maybe the only victory in all of this is that I started to have an anxiety attack while trying to write a text at 5 AM, because someone needed me to do something and it was 5 AM but it still needed to be done and I didn't have time to be upset because we were in the middle of someone is at the emergency room and there was a hazmat team in my home and no one knows why we're all getting sick.

But I stopped it. I didn't have an anxiety attack. I felt awful and I went to sleep and the world didn't end.

I didn't have an anxiety attack coming home to meet with the property manager and the Fire Inspectors this afternoon. I was real close—but I stopped it from happening. The world didn't end.

#

We've been trying to find out how the irritants are getting into the unit for a month. We're only starting to get answers now. Because everyone is very interested in telling us how unlikely something is or their readings can only tell us what it isn't.

There's an air quality technician coming tomorrow morning—and we're in touch with a host of municipal agencies who are all doing inspections. We may have even found where the smell is coming in—except it only explains half the places, and not why a corner of my room started smelling like cigarettes or how the smell got into the office closet (where it's always been the strongest.)

I passed on going to a concert with a friend tonight, because I can't do it—and she understood. The world didn't end.

The world probably won't end this week. But I really would prefer not to have to spend six-and-a-half more weeks feeling like it might.

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