We are surrounded every day by good and bad odors. We may love the scent of cinnamon toast or fresh flowers, but not react so favorably to the odor of that favorite gym bag or the contented dog on the rug. Does it really matter? Do odors make any difference to our health?
The truth is that some odors may be more than just unpleasant, but can either be directly harmful to our health or early warnings of potential problems that need to be addressed. Covering or removing the odor alone doesn’t get to the root of the problem.
Odors- what are they?
Everything in the world is a chemical, either natural or synthetic (produced by humans). Some of these chemicals are airborne, and have a structure that allows them to bind to olfactory receptors in the roof of our nasal cavity. When these reactions occur a message is sent to the brain that is interpreted as a smell.
The senses of sight and hearing detect waves of light or sound, usually studied under the subject known as physics. However, smells are pure chemistry, caused by molecules of a particular substance. These molecules can be detected in the air by instruments and counted. Air quality is measured by counting how many of certain kinds of molecules are present in a given volume of air.
Air Quality- what is it?
Air quality measures two components, chemical compounds and particulate matter. These are different kinds of things.
Particulate matter consists of “large” particles. Think of soot or pollen. They are usually classified by their size, but since they can be irregular in shape this gets tricky. The greatest health danger is due to collection in the lungs and the irritation it causes. Allergic reactions to pollen are completely different, but a high pollen count can be a general health problem because pollen consists of small particles which can be inhaled. Particulate matter does not necessarily have an odor.
The other component of air quality is the chemistry of the air. Are there toxic compounds in the air? Is the concentration high enough to affect health? These are key questions to those who study the health effects of air quality. Not all chemicals that are harmful can be detected by our sense of smell, but some can.
Health- Can odors affect it?
Direct Chemical Hazards
Some chemicals one can smell can be directly harmful to the body.
1. Secondhand smoke is a perfect example. It is known to contain both cancer-causing chemicals and particulates.
2. Construction materials can contain harmful chemicals. Some foam insulations and plastics are known to give off volatile organic compounds (VOC). This simply means that the molecules are light enough to become gas and float off into the air. We often detect some of these as “new building smell.” Many of them have been shown to have harmful effects over the long-term, leading to cancer and other kinds of tissue damage
3. Finishing products may also contain toxic chemicals. New carpeting, upholstery, paints and varnishes also produce VOCs. Most VOCs come from the fact that they were manufactured from petrochemicals- they are oil/ petroleum based. Like those from construction products, these can be inhaled or even absorbed through the skin. The effects of a lifetime of exposure to these types of products is just beginning to be understood.
4. Cleaning products can also contain harmful VOCs. All of the same information applies.
5. Pesticides can be dangerous or even deadly. Never use even products marketed for the home in a poorly ventilated space. Compounds in pesticides are meant to cause death to certain organisms. While the particular chemical may not be directly lethal, or in a high enough concentration to be fatal to humans, they may cause some damage. They also may accumulate in body tissues with repeated exposure.
Indirect Chemical Clues
Sometimes a bad odor is an indication that bacteria or mold is growing somewhere and needs to be eliminated. Not all bacteria and/or mold is bad for us. In fact, most of them aren’t. But some people are seriously allergic to particular molds. Some bacteria cause illnesses. Odors can help us find hot spots of these kinds of problems.
1. Pet odors may or may not mean much. Almost every type of animal, humans included, has a distinctive type of body odor. Dogs smell like dogs, and people smell like people (your dog knows this!). However, when pet odors reach an unpleasant level it may be an indication of other problems. A high level of pet dander (small skin cells that flake off and float in the air) can create odors. Some people are allergic to this. However, if you can smell urine or feces in your home, this can be a health problem. If the pet isn’t being taken outside often enough, if the litter box is not cleaned, or if the animal chooses to eliminate in the house, bacteria are sure to begin to grow.
2. If the house smells musty, then there is mold growing somewhere. Molds are living things, tiny organisms that produce spores to multiply. The spores, like pollen, can become a problem either as a particulate, or due to allergic reactions.
3. Nobody likes the smell of an old gym bag, uncovered food left out for a few days, or a dirty bathroom. All of these odors are due to the growth of bacteria. What makes bacteria grow? Warmth and moisture. Given a sweaty pair of socks enclosed in a hamper, or a leftover glass of milk on the counter, bacteria can double in population every 20 minutes! By the time you can smell the problem, there are millions of microorganisms. Again, many of these are not harmful. But many are. That glass of milk may sour, which is not a particular health problem. But if the person who drank part of it had a cold, those germs have reproduced right along with the ones that made the milk curdle. Human elimination products (think bathroom) are rife with all the things your body worked to get rid of. Allowing those bacteria to reproduce freely is just asking for trouble.
Improving Health and Odor Control
Some of these problems can be addressed by using the odors as sensory clues to existing problems. Not all problems have odors, but unpleasant or strong odors may be an indication of a problem.
Eliminate smoking in your home. Be sure to clean all surfaces thoroughly, and fabrics in particular. We all know that you can tell with a sniff if someone has smoked in a motel room, even months earlier.
As for construction, decorating and cleaning products, there are more and more organic and non-toxic options becoming available. Using natural materials is always a good choice. Often you will need to remove old products from your home. For example, older carpet can still be giving off dangerous chemicals that you can no longer smell. Think about when it was manufactured, and research the VOCs given off by that product. You can hire someone to test the air quality in your home if you are really concerned. Instruments can “smell” lower concentrations of toxic products than the human nose. They can also “smell” things that we can not.
Pesticides always have special handling instructions, and are rarely meant for indoor use. There are natural and biologic types of pest control which can be researched. Often, keeping a clean house will reduce then need for as many pest control products. For example, dust mites, bedbugs, etc thrive in fabrics that are slightly damp and not clean. For example, airing a bed for a few minutes before making it can help control both odors and vermin by allowing the collected perspiration in the sheets to dry.
Strong pet odors usually mean that there are problems to address. Thoroughly clean pet bedding, litter boxes, etc. If your pet is eliminating on the floors or rugs you may need professional help in retraining, or there may be a medical issue. Of course, you will need to clean, and perhaps replace carpets. For people who are allergic to animal dander, some breeds are known to shed less than others and are recommended for people with allergies.
Mold grows where there is moisture and often darkness. It can grow inside walls and never be visible without demolition. But if you can smell it, it’s somewhere. Solutions usually involve removal of molded objects and structural changes or plumbing renovation. Because it grows best on porous surfaces it can be very difficult or impossible to simply clean them.
“Ordinary” bad odors usually mean that something needs to be cleaned. Remember, covering up persistent odors is not a solution, because the source of the problem will still be there. Launder those dirty clothes, clean the bathroom, and wash the dishes. All those things that Mom told you to do regularly… there is a reason. Controlling the growth of bacteria will give you a healthier home, and one that smells better too.
Finally, remember that odors are simply chemical reactions that our brains can detect. But the source of the odor could be a potential health problem.