The Nose Knows, But Not Always

Odors can serve as important warning signals for Toxicant-Induced Loss of Tolerance (TILT). An odor can let us know when a chemical is present that is not good for us, or has the potential to make us sick. It is not always easy to identify a harmful chemical, however.

Some initiators and/or triggers lack any discernible odor. Other times these chemicals are masked by fragrances. Some people suffer from anosmia, which means they lack the ability to smell. These people may also be unable to identify harmful chemicals in their environment. Individuals who are anosmic and suffer from severe conditions like asthma or anaphylaxis are at high risk for developing life-threatening symptoms when exposed to chemicals to which they are sensitive.

Continuous exposure to an odor in a home, workplace, or community can lead to masking (olfactory adaptation/olfactory fatigue). This is when a person gets so accustomed to an odor that they no longer notice it.

The Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR), a part of the Center for Disease Control (CDC), has a database of odors. Users can type in the description of an odor and see a list of chemical compounds that might be present in a given environment.

It is important to be aware of your environment. This is especially important for indoor air, as most people spend 90% of their time indoors. Proper ventilation is a good first step. Also, minimize or eliminate scented products such as perfume, air fresheners, fragranced cleaning products, and scented candles. Also keep in mind that not all harmful chemicals have an odor. Pesticides, for example, are among the most common and most toxic chemicals. Baits and traps are good alternatives to pesticide application. For more information on pesticide alternatives, see the EPA website on Integrated Pest Management (IPM). For other helpful alternatives, see the table below:

Instead of Using… Try Using…
Pesticides indoors or on lawns; mothballs Baits or traps to control bugs indoors (avoid attracting bugs by tightly sealing foods, including pet foods)
Paints, varnishes, glues, and polishes with high solvent content Paints with low solvent content, water-based finishes and glues (have these applied when you are away from home)
Bleach, ammonia, disinfectants, and strong cleaning products “Elbow grease,” soap and water, baking soda, and vinegar
Scented products, perfumes, air fresheners, and incense Unscented cleansers, laundry detergent, fabric softeners, and cosmetics
Hair coloring, permanents, hair spray, or any aerosol product New haircut and unscented hair gel or styling products that do not require spraying
Dry cleaning, odorous soft plastic toys, or mattress covers Washable toys, bedding, and clothes
Odorous flooring (e.g., vinyl, pressed wood, or particle board) or carpeting, which can also trap allergens Ceramic/stone tile or hardwood floors
Commercial foods/beverages that may contain pesticides or other questionable ingredients Organic foods and foods without additives or artificial colors
Plastic food containers Glass, stainless steel containers

-Dr. Claudia Miller, Sabrina Gonzales