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

Article Categories: Blog, Chemical Intolerance/TILT, Fragrance, Pesticides, Toxic Products

6 Responses to “The Nose Knows, But Not Always”

  1. Byron Woolcock

    As I was diagnosed in 1974, now in my eightieth year, I appreciate very much your research and support. Of course we have followed your wise guidance regarding indoor air but cannot,sadly, control the neighbours wood smoke entering our safe home.

  2. I am surprised you didn’t mention Hyperosmia – hypersensitive sense of smell. I acquired this fun issue after I was TILTED. I would love know how to get my sniffer back to normal levels.

  3. jay sanders

    I have MCS and cannot tolerate fragrance of any kind. axe colonge, plug-ins, and dryer sheets are my worst enemies, but all products with fragrance makes me very ill. INCLUDING Essential Oils. Nearly ALL people with MCS cannot tolerate EO’s! its still a very strong fragrance and none of them are truley organic. a true organci EO would cost well over $500 for a TINY bottle. they all have artificial fragrance in them. PLEASE consider takingg that recomendation out. EO’s are making millions sick to. i could not even to go, 3 allergists, my dr wanted me to go to due to EO’s!

  4. Please do not promote essential oils as a safe substitute for synthetic fragrances. They are NOT benign, and they are causing adverse effects in many people, some are even life threatening.

    EOs are accessibility barriers as much as synthetic fragrances and other toxic chemicals are, because they also release hazardous VOCs, some of which turn into other pollutants when they are exposed to everyday ozone.

    A growing number of us no longer have access to alternative health care or health food stores (and the products they sell) because EOs are being diffused everywhere. This means we have access to almost nothing, as we already had to avoid regular health care and grocers.

    See Anne Steinemann’s research:
    Essential oils (both regular and “organic”) emitted chemicals classified as hazardous, with no significant difference between the regular and organic products.

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