Smell Pollution

(Taken from here.)

Maybe it’s just because I’m going slowly deaf in my left ear, but noise pollution doesn’t bother me too much, even though it’s well nigh ubiquitous. Perhaps that’s why–it’s literally white noise, even the worst of it. Smell pollution, on the other hand, bothers me mentally and physically, and often strikes me as a kind of insidious ambush.

Smell pollution for me often has to do with human-made products. Like, we’ll be walking around Lake Ella and two women will pass us, and in their wake one of them will be leaving the most ridiculously odious perfumy smell, making my eyes water and my throat tighten. And I’ll think, I don’t know what odor that was disguising, but I’d prefer to take my chances with the alternative regardless.

Most perfumes in close proximity, even subtle ones, more or less poison me–altering mood or literally giving me a headache, even if the natural equivalent of the scent wouldn’t hurt me at all. Hairspray is an absolute killer, even in moderation. Sometimes at parties, I have to avoid certain people because I just have no interest in experiencing a half hour of watering eyes. It might not even be perfume–it might be the smell coming off of a plastic handbag.

Plastic shower curtains have a similar effect. Common household detergents. Some dryer sheets. I hate it because it feels like I’m being attacked by the humdrum of every-day life. Our normal routines shouldn’t seem like they’re poisoning us. I can be going along quite happy, and some smell will mess up my day–sometimes I’ll be so wrapped up in something else that I won’t even notice the danger until it’s too late.

People without this sensitivity often dismiss it as an overreaction. I used to share an office with a woman who started using hand cream. Within a day, it was obvious to me that her hand cream–just being in the same space–was making my throat seize up, my eyes water, and my face feel puffy. I asked her politely if she’d mind not using the cream at work. She did, but then secretly began reintroducing its use, thinking, I suppose, that I was mistaken, or that by slowly increasing the dosage she could acclimate me to it. Instead, it just made my life miserable for a few days until I figured out what the heck was going on.

Smell pollution is pretty unavoidable–it’s there every time you pump gas or roll your window down while driving–but so much of it is synthetic that I can’t help but think we live in a self-made poisonous world, which some of us are just oblivious to. At the same time that I resent being exposed to such noxious odors, I am glad to have the sensitivity, in that at least it gives me the option of not exposing myself to poison most of the time. And, unlike certain types of noise pollution, smell pollution isn’t constant. But even five or six times a week is too much.


  1. Xelgaex says

    I don’t have the severity of reaction that you do, but I see some of myself in your description of the perfume reaction. I don’t find floral scents appealing at all. Indeed flowers themselves mostly just smell pollen-y to me. I wonder whether other people are smelling something different or whether they just like that smell that to me is like the olfactory equivalent of chalkboard nails.

  2. says

    polar opposite: I have almost no sense of smell, having burned out my olfactory a long time ago, but I have highly sensitive hearing. Unnecessary noise [espcially, but not exclusively, noise eating] drives me crazy. In fact I avoid restaurants unless on super-important occasions because I am guaranteed to want to stab someone in the face for chewing with their mouth open.

    now I think about it I need to write a cathartic scene in which my hero beats someone to a bloody pulp for that very offense.

  3. Doreen says

    I have a similar reaction to all of the above only instead of eyes and throat, my airways constrict, i.e., it’s an odor-reactive asthma. Smoke does it too, and not just smoke in the air, but smoke coming off of peoples’ clothes and smoke odor left in elevators, cars, store aisles and what not. Any kind of smoke sets me off: the ubiquitous smudging at supposedly spiritual gatherings, ditto incense, and neighborhood leaf and trash burning, illegal just about everywhere but people love their fires. I have had to leave a yoga studio because they thought it was cool to burn incense during classes. I suspect that those of us who have these sensitivities are like the canaries in the mines. Dryer sheets are one of the most noxious items known to mankind. I have a friend who put them in her garage to keep out the squirrels–with success–when all else had failed including fox and coyote urine powders.

  4. says

    God forbid you ever walk past an Abercrombie and Fitch. I swear they must have pumps installed in their air-conditioning units to waft that stuff out. I walked past the empty storefront, at an outside mall, where one had closed a few months ago, and the stench was still strong in the air.

    I’m also reminded of Patton Oswalt’s rant against hippies and patchouli.

  5. says

    There’s a good chance that many truly high-quality perfumes without synthetics wouldn’t do that to you. I have the same reaction you do to almost all commercial perfumes, scented hand-lotions, etc., but at some point I discovered that all perfumes were not like that. (Of course, some natural perfumes still have ingredients I’m sensitive to – I just have to find the right ones.) I have an intense addiction to smells, but I’m extremely picky because so many give me the headache/sinus-swelling/sneezing reaction.

    I also share your frustration with other people who dismiss it as an over-reaction. (Or who apparently don’t care enough to remember you have the problem and go about perfuming themselves in your presence! I have a friend that does this in my house and then I can’t get rid of the miasma for hours!)

  6. says

    Doreen–that sucks, re smoke. Smoke I find a transitory annoyance–like, it can bother me, but it doesn’t give me a headache or anything.

    Laurie–the hand cream that that person was using was all-natural, so I guess it just depends. Yeah, I’ve got relatives who don’t understand. One actually went out of her way to spray more hair spray.

    Tessa–Heh. You are predictable. If I wanted all yer money all I’d have to do is have capybaras or belugas run the con. Besides, they’re NOT capybaras–they’re advanced seek-and-destroy-artificial-odor robots.

  7. says

    “seek-and-destroy-artificial-odor robots”….aka….CAPYBARAAAAAAAA!!!!!!

    I appear to have a sensitive nose, in that I detect smells no one else does. Or, my nose is merely confused, neglected, and gunning for attention. My sinuses do not complain overly.

  8. says

    I actually detect smells no one else does, too. Which had me all weirded out that I had some kind of disorder for awhile. Or it might be that my nose is not directional enough. That it has some weird like of ventriloquism in its scenting–that the smell is there, but in some other direction. Weird.

    Am glad I’m going deaf, though, since it makes it much more fun. Somebody says pass the potatoes and I can say “piss inbetween your toes”?

  9. says

    Have you been tested by an allergist for all the possible triggers? I had to have tests done a couple of years ago because I was have asthmatic reactions to any aerosol spray, as well as to many of the same types of smells that you did. I was diagnosed with a form of rhinitis that is triggered by strong smells, leaving me almost constantly feeling congested when I’m around those who like to pile on the makeup and perfumes or those who like to smoke, even outdoors.

  10. says

    Yeah, last night I was working with a lady who happened to be wearing one of my favourite perfumes. I commented on it, because I happened to think she smelled lovely, but I can understand that people have a reaction. It’s for that reason I don’t wear perfume to work.

  11. JuhaT says

    I’ve had similar experiences. Not full-blown allergic reactions, but strong perfumes and even scented lotions and the like can make me feel light-headed. My girlfriend has taken to checking with me before buying new perfume to make sure that the scent won’t start make me nautious. Just one of the many things she has to put up with.

  12. Jinho says

    Oh man. I can never go near those who smoke. I avoid them like the plague.
    The smoke gives me nausea and headaches ughh. It smells just terrible too.
    And then there is the dreaded “new car” smell. Seven years later and my grandparents’ lexis still smells new. Thanks to that I get nausea and headaches – reading worsens it, haha.
    The “outside” smell irks me as well. It doesn’t give me any reaction but it is just a rank an unsightly scent that drives me insane. My family comes in from their five second trip to gather the basil in the backyard and I cannot go near them. They smell of outside and it’s disgusting. Must have something to do with all the pollution I guess.

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