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Chemical Smells in Refrigerators

Updated February 21, 2017

Chemical smells emitting from your refrigerator may be caused by a leakage of the refrigerant used to cool the appliance's interior. Other causes may be a dripping pan that needs cleaning, food spoilage or strong-smelling foods not covered tightly or adequately packaged. Odours are easily spread because your refrigerator contains circulating air confined within an enclosed space. Detecting the source of the odour requires investigation. Odour remediation may then follow.

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How a Refrigerator Works

Refrigeration is based on two scientific principles. One is that a gas cools when it expands. The second is a law of physics called the Second Law of Thermodynamics. This law states that when two surfaces, different in temperature, touch or are in close proximity to one another, the hotter surface cools and the cooler surface warms. Refrigerators use vaporised gas pumped through pipes to remove heat from inside the refrigerator and release it to the outside air.

The Gases

Older refrigerators use a gas chemically known as chlorofluorocarbon or CFC. The brand name of CFC is freon. Newer refrigerators have replaced freon with HFC-134a, also called tetrafluoroethane or HFC, because leaking CFC negatively affects the protective ozone layer surrounding our planet. A chemical odour in a newer refrigerator may be an HFC leak. Freon is odourless and requires a specialised detector to identify a gas leakage. In older refrigerators, the chemical odour is most likely food or spillage related.


If gas leakage is suspected, it is best to call a qualified appliance repair technician to diagnose and repair the leak. If you believe that the odour may be food related, try a little detective work. Check your food. Follow your nose to detect spoilage and use your hands to feel for wet or sticky spills. Examine the glass shelves and door gaskets for evidence of food debris or mould. Check the floor of the freezer section for loose foods trapped in hidden holes and crevices.


For a thorough cleaning, remove all items from your refrigerator and allow the appliance to warm to room temperature. Remove all drawers and shelves and clean them with warm, soapy water. Wipe the interior walls and dry all surfaces with a clean cloth. Avoid using cleaning products that emit odours of their own. Replace the good food and reset the temperature according to the manufacturer's specifications. Place a fresh box of baking odour inside to absorb future unwanted odours and replace the box every three months to keep your refrigerator fresh smelling.

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About the Author

Kevin Ann Reinhart, a retired teacher-librarian, has written professionally since 1976. Reinhart first published in "Writers' Undercover" Cambridge Writers Collective II. She has a bachelor's degree in English and religious studies from the University of Waterloo and a librarian specialist certificate from Queen's University and the University of Toronto.

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