Noisome or nice? Volunteers amble through olfactory jungle of NYC to sniff out city’s scents

Saturday, March 27, 2010

Volunteers amble through olfactory jungle of NYC

NEW YORK — From rotting garbage to sweet-roasting peanuts at sidewalk stands, New Yorkers are constantly bombarded with the aromas of urban life.

“You’re walking into the olfactory jungle,” said perfume designer Celine Barel of International Flavors and Fragrances on Friday at a daylong conference devoted to smells and the city.

That dazzling variety of smells has given a group of researchers at Rockefeller University the perfect bouquet from which to sniff out the mystery of how people process olfactory sensations.

“We don’t know what the rules are for going from a smell to a sensation of smell,” said Leslie Vosshall, one of the scientists, who presented some of her group’s findings at the conference at the New School.

In a five-year study aimed at creating a “smell demography” of New York City, she said they subjected hundreds of volunteers found through Craigslist to intensive smell testing and found that the most pleasant scent, across groups, is vanilla.

The worst: Isovaleric acid, most commonly associated with eau de sweaty sock.

Among the more interesting findings so far was that men secrete a particular smell that about 15 percent of New Yorkers are less likely to respond to, she said. The best smellers were young females who don’t smoke.

There were also a lot of volunteers who had a distorted view of their own nose.

“We found a whole lot of people who are incredibly into volunteering for smell studies and are completely blind to odors,” she said, adding that unlike people who suffer from blindness, they are “completely unaware” of their inability to detect scents.

Odor has become a stinky point in New York City over the years, from complaints about the stench from factories in the Bronx to mystery odors tracked to New Jersey.

In 2009, a maple syrup smell that drifted through parts of the city more than half a dozen times was traced by a team of odor investigators to a Garden State facility that processes fenugreek seeds for flavorings. In a separate case, a team of investigators from New York and New Jersey was unable to determine the origin of a foul stench that drifted up the Hudson River in 2007.

Most of the more than 6,000 odor and fumes complaints received by the city in 2009 originated in Manhattan, said city Department of Environmental Protection spokesman Farrell Sklerov. The complaints encompassed idling vehicles, smells from restaurants, private garbage collection and dry cleaning.

Most New Yorkers have become accustomed to the daily smells of their metropolis, though they don’t necessarily like them.

“It smells terrible,” said Susan Wong, of the Bronx, walking out the door of a meat market on a Chinatown street, followed by a whiff of roasting animal. She said she particularly hates the way the garbage smells. “You just don’t want to come here. You want to go as far as you can.”

Eddie Hires, 50, said how it smells depended on the time of the year.

“Right now, it’s all right,” said Hires, standing on Canal Street in Chinatown, wearing a flimsy sign that read “We buy gold, jewelry & watches.” ”But then in the summer, they have garbage trucks, and it smells like dead bodies or something. It’s awful.”

A pair of tourists walking down a nearby street passed a fish market, where raw fillets rested on ice in plastic bins, and a tchotchke store, where sandalwood incense was burning slowly.

After stopping in front of a meat market where ducks and chickens hung from hooks, one of the tourists, Ellie Simpson, 17, of Chapel Hill, North Carolina, said the city’s smell was a great guide for tourists.

“You don’t have to look,” she said. “You just have to smell.”

For Dr. Uddalak Majundar, who recently moved to New York City from Calcutta, India, the many odors make the city come alive for him.

“You can have an entire group of people communicate their culture through their smells,” he said.

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