Shortly after we moved into our apartment, we noticed that a couple of our food items were freeze burned. We put it down to the old freezer which was not well-maintained, or some abuse during moving, and ignored it. Then we discovered brand-new food items were getting freezer burned. We checked to see if a vent was getting blocked, and checked for excess ice crystals. I checked the seal on the gasket on the door. We adjusted the temperature gauge with no change in temps or results. As time went on, I started noticing a metallic, almost anti-freeze flavor going on in our food. Everything became flavorless. I was getting sick after every meal; exhausted, headaches, stomach aches, constant food aversion. We ate out a few times, and I thought it was less sickening because it was comfort food or because I didn't have to smell the food cooking in the house.
I called my dad. He has more experience with refrigerator repairs than I do, though to be fair working in budget kitchens for so long (and all those years of science fair projects and managing my health care!) I'm pretty good at observing symptoms of a problem and coming up with a logical solution. He confirmed a suspicion that we probably had a fridge coolant leak.
I did some research. I found out that not all refrigerators these days have freon in them, but I also found out that it almost doesn't matter. The symptoms of a coolant leak are the same:
- Foods that are frozen solid but feel warm to the touch and getting visibly freezer burned.
- Foods that have metallic flavors.
- Foods that rot in a ridiculously fast timeframe, especially from the inside out (like cucumbers that look fine on the outside but have slimy seed cores).
- Food outside the fridge, especially in the path of the air when the door is open, rotting more quickly (like the freshly purchased bottle of olive oil that went rancid, but the larger bottle it came out of was tucked away in a cupboard and fine).
- Stomachaches, and intestinal distress after eating contaminated food.
- Intense, incurable heartburn that is especially bad after eating contaminated food.
- Headaches after contaminated food, but the coolant leaking causes chronic symptoms unrelated to food intake.
- Trouble with concentration and focus.
- Body aches, muscle pain, joint stiffness due to the leaking in the atmosphere and eating contaminated food.
- Lethargy, general weakness, and exhaustion with difficulty sleeping.
- Photo- (light), smell-, and sound- sensitivities that get worse over time.
- Aversion to food in general but our subconscious brains put it together first that the food in our home is making us sick, so it often starts as a strong desire to "just order in" or "let's go out"--but as for the latter, see the aversion to smells and sounds.
- As time goes on and the poison keeps getting introduced, ulcers will develop in the esophagus, stomach, intestines, liver, kidneys, colon and bladder. Blood in the stool and urine become more noticeable.
- The aerated coolant will also irritate the sinuses and lungs, causing allergy and asthma symptoms/aggravation.
Health-wise, everything there is a symptom I deal with regularly, so I didn't notice at first. Mr. Moon wasn't feeling anywhere near as poorly, which makes sense as I have a weaker immune system and the fact that he got a significant break from the coolant in the apartment's air supply by going to work almost every day. It was the incurable heartburn that finally got my attention that this was serious, and not simple user error. One day it was so bad that I ended up with chemical burns on my tongue and throat. My voice was hoarse for days, speaking and swallowing were intolerable. That was when I called my dad and eventually put all this together.
Within a couple days of the worst of the horrible heartburn, we woke up (at 10am on a Wednesday) and I realized that food we had purchased the day before was completely freezer burned, and the smell of the coolant was finally noticeable in the freezer. The coolant leak was officially confirmed. We called our landlord who said he would be over within 2 hours, cleared out the freezer (I calculated about $200 in food thrown out), and sat around the house feeling miserable, getting sicker by the hour. Eventually (9pm when the landlord hadn't shown up yet) we went to the store to pick up some fridge thermometers so we could see what the temperatures in the machine were, and some ice so we could salvage our food in the fridge, and while we were gone our landlord called to say he was bringing us a 3/4 size fridge to move our food into. He said if we needed a new fridge it would take a few days to get to us.
We didn't realize at the time that the leak was contaminating all our fridge food too, we just thought it was the freezer at first. We moved all the fridge food, turned off the old machine to let it defrost because the landlord was convinced it was just ice on the coils. Without the coolant being pumped, the smell seemed to dissipate a bit. He was supposed to be over at 10am the next morning to check to see how much ice melted off (hint: none, there was no puddle). He never showed, but the fried stayed at a steady 45 degrees F while the freezer was a solid 20F. So it was not an issue with the defrost cycle taking too long or heating up the food At noon on Friday, Mr. Moon called to find out when the landlord would be over to deal with this broken fridge. He asked us to find out if the defrost cycle was not working by temping the freezer with ice cubes, and could not seem to understand that we had already done that no matter how many times we told him that the temps were fine, and our food tastes like fridge coolant. We did his test with the ice cubes, confirmed they were freezing, barely, but tasting like nasty coolant, and I had to turn off the fridge. I could feel what it was doing to me just by being on. Without food inside to absorb the gas, it was even worse than before.
Saturday passed. Sunday passed. We started realizing how badly the food in the fridge had been contaminated, and increased our food loss to $300 by throwing out everything that was not contained in glass. The glass jars seemed to be fine.
Finally on Wednesday, we got ahold of our landlord again. We finally managed to convince him that the machine was busted, and it was time to replace it. A new one was purchased, but then he called to have me take measurements and it wouldn't have fit under the cupboard that was above it. He ordered a new one, to be delivered on Sunday. I asked him if he would be removing the old fridge before then and he said he would call me before he could stop by so we wouldn't have two fridges sitting around. Surprise surprise, he never did. That was the day before Thanksgiving.
Sunday came, and the delivery truck came by. They moved the broken machine out, and in the process a gelatinous glob of rotten STUFF fell out of the internal workings (onto my carpet no less), despite the entire thing having been cleaned twice already. I've since found out that the coolant will gelatinize around the leak sometimes, which is why it doesn't all go at once, and I can only imagine that's what this glob of nastiness was.
I got the glob all cleaned up with homemade enzyme cleaner, which seems to have actually helped. I figured it would just take the worst of the smell out until a professional could be brought in since the landlord said it might take a couple days (that was 10 days ago, by the way) but the spot doesn't seem to be collecting dirt or having any noticeable odor yet. Maybe after more time has gone by, if it's a problem we can get it cleaned better.
How are we doing now?
Ten days since the broken leaky fridge was removed, I really seem to be on the mend. I've made a point of taking lots of healing probiotics, drinking kombucha and such to help heal the ulcers. My sinuses are much happier and my headaches have lessened quite a bit. Since a lot of the symptoms I had were pre-existing, there's only so much improvement I can expect. Mr. Moon seems to have more energy, though. Our sleep improved once we got a new bed, but that's a whole other comedy of errors! My incurable heartburn has been reduced back to the usual treatable kind, so that's nice.
The biggest thing is that we learned. One more thing that, if it happens again, we will be able to take care of it before we get super sick, before we lose anywhere near as much food. We didn't meet our renter's insurance deductible, so it's all out of pocket. Another expensive lesson that would have been more expensive if we owned and had to replace the fridge ourselves as well. I'm looking on the bright side of knowing how to deal with this if and when it ever happens again. That's all I can do anymore.