A couple of friends of mine live next door to each other in a 10-year old block of flats in London, UK. They say that in the early hours of the morning, a toxic smell appears in their flats, which smells a little bit like burning rubber or tar. It also makes their eyes burn and affects their breathing. Their attempts to inform the housing authority ended in dead ends, as the housing authority didn't seem to believe them about the smell.

In order to try to get to the bottom of this, I had some of their air sampled inside one of the flats (once when the smell was present, and once when it was not present), and sent it for Gas chromatography–mass spectrometry at a lab.

The lab only tests for about 70 specific volatile organic compounds, and none of those compounds showed much concentration change between the two samples.

Presumably, whatever is causing the smell is not one of those compounds.


  1. What compounds smell like burning rubber or tar?
  2. If the lab sends me the raw data from the GC-MS test, how easy is it to identify the presence those compounds from the data?
  • $\begingroup$ Thiophenol is one but rubber and tar burning will produce all sorts of things $\endgroup$
    – Andrew
    Aug 2, 2022 at 22:52
  • $\begingroup$ Did your friend ask someone to inspect the electrical appliances or heating elements (Dryers, water heating furnace, heaters)? quora.com/… $\endgroup$
    – AChem
    Aug 3, 2022 at 16:18

1 Answer 1


Check local history:

  1. Was the land used as a dump or filled in with waste wood? Creosote is derived from tar, and it is used as a wood preservative. If creosoted wood, such as railroad-ties, was used in landfill, that could lead to a strong odor.
  2. Coal ash or clinker can have a strong smell. Was a coal-burning power plant situated where those flats are now located? Was waste from coal-burning buried there?
  • $\begingroup$ Interestingly, the area was a wood yard about 15 years ago. But I doubt that's relevant, as the smell only appeared about a year ago. $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2022 at 9:15
  • $\begingroup$ Actually, the other thing that might well be relevant is that there was a fire in the building about 2 years ago (about a year before the smell appeared). The flats experiencing the smell were not affected by the fire. $\endgroup$ Aug 3, 2022 at 9:44
  • $\begingroup$ Landfill pollution may take years to become apparent. Though a toxic site may be capped with soil, eventually pollutants can seep out and rise to the surface. Take soil samples, or contact a firm that does so to find cost, e.g., adeptus.co.uk/soil-sampling-testing-service. The fire seems a bit of a red herring, since you state, "The flats experiencing the smell were not affected by the fire." $\endgroup$ Aug 4, 2022 at 1:20

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.