Refrigerators are trusty kitchen appliances that make safe food storage possible by keeping perishables cool to prevent the development of illness-causing, food-borne microbes. This is all possible through a complicated cooling system that utilizes a chemical refrigerant which is often Freon, the same chemical used in older commercial air conditioning units. The gas-based form of Freon, which has been modified over the years to make it less harmful to the atmosphere, is known to emit a strong chemical smell not unlike that of nail polish remover.
The smell of nail polish remover is usually caused by leaking refrigerant. You can't repair this yourself, because only licensed technicians can work on refrigeration systems.
The Smell of Refrigerant
Freon has been described as possessing a very pungent ozone or gasoline smell as well as smelling like cosmetic nail polish remover. The amount of Freon contained in the cooling systems of appliances is regulated to be at safe levels, well below any level that presents a threat to your health, but if your sense of scent is sensitive, the Freon smell can be overbearing.
Addressing the issue isn't as simple as finding the part of the fridge causing the leak, but that's a start. However, leaked Freon needs to be replaced by a technician, and you need to unplug the refrigerator until that happens. Modern versions of Freon won't harm you, according to Environment, Health & Safety Online, but they are still environmentally harmful, and your refrigerator won't cool properly if it has a leak. In the meantime, open some windows to allow the scent to dissipate.
Finding the Leak
For safety's sake, unplug and scoot the machine out from the wall to gain access to its back or underside, whichever is the location of the coolant tubes that channel Freon throughout the unit. Empty the contents of the fridge (you can place them in the sink for the time being in case they drip) and position yourself where the coolant pipes are.
In particular, look for the location of the expansion valve, where the refrigerant is forced through a small aperture to turn it into a vapor. Check your fridge's manual for the exact location.
A DIY Approach Won't Work
The best way to ascertain the location of the leak is to use your nose; wherever the nail polish smell is strongest, it's a sure bet that the leak is nearby. Use a flashlight if need be to find a pinhole in one of the copper evaporative coils.
Once you find the leak, you could use a patch kit designed specifically for repairing cooling coils if you could find one, but you probably won't, and it would be illegal to attempt the repair yourself. Because a Freon leak is an environmental hazard, only a licensed technician should work on a refrigeration system.
Call a Refrigeration Professional
Because most states and jurisdictions have made it unlawful for non-licensed persons to obtain Freon, you need to call a licensed repair technician. That person will assess the extent of the leak and determine whether repair is feasible and will cost less than a new refrigerator.
You need a licensed technician even if the refrigerator doesn't run on Freon, which many don't. Colony Air Conditioning & Heating advises that Freon, also known as R-22 refrigerant, is due to be completely phased out in 2020. If you decide to discard the refrigerator instead of having it repaired, you still need to call a pro, because the refrigeration coils have to be emptied before you send the refrigerator to the dump.
Kirk Maltbee is a freelance writer based in southwestern Virginia. A former licensed massage therapist, Maltbee has also spent considerable time as both an ACE- and NASM-certified personal fitness trainer. When not writing, he tackles home improvement projects.