Saturday, May 7, 2016

Phantom Smells

Pan’s Labyrinth – partially related image

I’ve been venturing into an interesting offshoot of everyday smell phenomena – the world of the Industrial Hygienist. Here we’re talking about phantom smells and indoor air quality, or what is sometimes called more broadly, indoor environmental quality (IAQ/IEQ).

I came across a post by an industrial hygienist proselytizing the use of one’s nose over more ‘scientific’ instruments of measurement to solve odor problems.

The problem is, when an industrial hygienist is hired to solve an odor issue, they are expected to give hard numbers based on measurements of the temperature, humidity, and composition of the air. Numbers lend credibility, putting a façade of certainty on your claims. But sometimes the numbers don’t get to the root of the problem. Smells are so evasive, so ephemeral, that they require more penetrating investigative work than the kind of data a hygrometer-wielding robot can produce. (However, don’t discount the photoionization detector, he says, as it detects very small amounts of odor compounds and can point you in the direction of a specific pointsource – like an old lunchbag.)

In the article, What’s That Smell, we get a few explanations for the origin of “that smell” that’s been haunting your office. As usual, the comments section yields some good odor-vocab to help us unravel the most impossible lexical behemoths.

I’ll copy some highlights from Mr. Jack Springston’s article here:
Rotten eggs and sewer-smells – pretty much sewer gas; it’s usually blocked from pumping upwards through your plumbing, until the trap dries out do to disuse or whatever; turn the faucet on to fill it back up, but make sure it’s not a natural gas leak!
Dirty sock – bacterial growth on air conditioning coils
Vomit/butyric acid – certain ceiling tiles can make this smell when they get wet; who knew?
Good old mold  – besides making the obvious visual inspection for water damage, check the air vents, as sometimes the mold growth is right there on the vents themselves; ironic.
All-purpose phantom odors – check the air vent system; sometimes the building’s innards are connected in surprising ways, and they might take a smell from one place and send it through a maze of ducts to the intake vent in your room.

     Jack Springston, Industrial Hygiene Program Manager at TRC Environmental, an engineering, environmental consulting and construction management firm.
     This article was originally published in the November 2015 issue of Healthy Indoors Magazine

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