Chemical Smells in Refrigerators

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 drip pan that needs cleaning, food spoilage or strong-smelling foods not covered tightly or adequately packaged. Odors are easily spread because your refrigerator contains circulating air confined within an enclosed space. Detecting the source of the odor requires investigation. Odor remediation may then follow.

Investigate the cause of chemical odors in a refrigerator as soon as possible.

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 vaporized 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 odor in a newer refrigerator may be an HFC leak. Freon is odorless and requires a specialized detector to identify a gas leakage. In older refrigerators, the chemical odor 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 odor 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 mold. 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 odors of their own. Replace the good food and reset the temperature according to the manufacturer's specifications. Place a fresh box of baking odor inside to absorb future unwanted odors and replace the box every three months to keep your refrigerator fresh smelling.