Follow the Nose ... It Always Knows!

Environment Ministry uses human sniffers to detect annoying odors.

Last week, when strong food and chemical odors overwhelmed the Haifa Bay area, half a dozen Environment Ministry representatives stood sniffing the air outside the Frutarom Industries plant, which was responsible for the smell. The ministry people each filled out an "odor nuisance report" to indicate the smells they detected and the intensity.

"Now I smell guavas. They must me using guava extract now," said Anna Kitman, one of the sniffers, writing an X beside the 6 on her form to indicate the highest odor intensity, defined as "insufferable."

In addition to her job as radiation safety engineer for the ministry's Haifa district, Kitman is a member of the district's "sniff team," which assists in handling odor nuisances and hazards.

"We go to the place with at least four sniffers," says team coordinator Yisrael Oppenheim, "stand at a few locations in the area of the odor source, and detect whether it is food aromas, chemicals or manure, and determine the intensity of the smell at that moment."

The type of odor and its intensity depend on weather conditions such as temperature, humidity and wind direction. When Kitman, for example, stood last week opposite the Frutarom factory gate and detected guavas, two minutes later she smelled grapefruit, and a few minutes later her sniffing colleague, Nava Gefen, detected a level-4 ("very strong") chemical smell. Kitman says the team members' conclusions are usually similar.

After collecting their data, the team coordinator processes it and adds it to the event investigation file. This data is also acceptable as evidence in court.

The sniffing profession has been around ever since the enactment of environmental protection legislation in the 1960s. Odor detection technology is not yet sufficiently advanced, so human sniffers are still used.

"The human nose is extremely sensitive to odors," explains Oppenheim. "It's the best. There is measuring equipment for effluents and there are monitoring stations for measuring air pollution. There is even a new device for locating and classifying odors, but it does not measure concentrations. We still rely on our noses."

A good example of the superiority of the human nose is the fact that in many cases air pollution complaints are received from local residents before bothersome levels of pollutants are registered at the monitoring stations.

One does not need a big nose to smell well, but Gefen says women have an advantage over men. In the Haifa team there are eight women and only two men.

"Women have a keener sense of smell," says Gefen, probably because they have greater contact with different aromas: black pepper, turmeric and various other spices.

"We also undergo training and continuing education courses. They test our odor detection threshold; teach us how to distinguish between smells."

The sniffers commit to abstain from smoking and drinking alcoholic beverages, which weaken the sense of smell. Before going on an odor detection mission, the sniffers must not eat anything with a strong flavor, drink coffee, or use deodorant, so that the accompanying aromas do not mix with the odors at the detection site.

Despite its importance in doing their job, a keen sense of smell can cause sniffers considerable problems.

"Every time I smell spices, I sneeze," complains Kitman. "I am affected by the slightest odor nuisance, and sometimes it makes me nauseated or even dizzy."

She would be willing to give up her unusual job, however, only "if no one would pollute, there were no odors and we did not have to smell. Factories, and people in general, need to be aware of the air quality, just as they are aware of the need to brush their teeth."