Readers reply: is the world getting smellier?

The long-running series in which readers answer other readers’ questions on subjects ranging from trivial flights of fancy to profound scientific and philosophical concepts

When you spray perfume, there’s a smell, but then it dissipates. But surely if everyone is spraying perfume, and making other smells, the world must be accumulating smells. Does the world in general have an odour? And is it getting more potent?
Jade Bulteel, Shropshire

Send new questions to nq@theguardian.com.

Readers reply

I’m a science teacher. Scientifically speaking, the answer to this question is clearly no, because most volatile chemicals easily degrade (that’s fall apart, for those not fully comfortable with scientific jargon), or combine, when heated or exposed to light or oxygen. This means that the smells and indeed flavourings of anything are short-lived and ephemeral.

You spray perfume from a bottle and it is immediately pungent, but the aromatic components, once exposed to light, oxygen and room temperature, will have fallen apart or combined into other chemicals that do not smell within a few seconds, minutes, hours or at very most days. So there is no long-term build up in the world.

In short, all chemicals will eventually react with something, thus turning into something else, and those with a strong odour often turn out to be particularly good at doing so – while the products of those reactions are usually not themselves smelly, or indeed particularly reactive.

However, philosophically, there might be a kind of war of the perfumes that takes place in societies, at certain times, whereby the fashion becomes temporarily tilted towards wearing more pungent aromas, leading to the perception that everyone is (at least for a time) getting aromatically louder. I recall when I was young woman the scent Poison was new. It is very fruity, lingering, and quite pungent, and for a long time I favoured it over more subtle scents. So did many others, but the fashion eventually passed away, just like a room-filling residual scent eventually does. Rejennyrated

The world became much smellier when the first branch of Lush opened. MrCassandra

As a chronic daily migraine sufferer who has chemical smells as a trigger, I believe London is definitely getting smellier. I try to not go out when people are travelling to and from work. They always think they have to apply copious amounts of chemical odours to themselves at these times of day. There are so many chemical “perfumes” around us all the time: smelly air fresheners, bleach, fabric conditioners, vapes, perfume, body sprays, aftershave. They cause pain initially that I describe as being force-fed gloss paint. Very shortly after I suffer from intense brain fog and find myself unable to think or answer a simple question. Then my vision becomes impaired, everything I see swims around me. Then comes the intense pain of the migraine increasing and all the other aura symptoms associated with it. I have been isolating myself since long before the pandemic for my own safety. The fear of encountering these clouds of poison from even one individual can prevent me from going out for days. I know from experience that the intensity of the combination of the stink in the air that we breathe has definitely increased in recent times. Migraine sufferers are not the only ones who suffer from this – people with lung conditions also have it listed as a medical trigger. HazeH60

Yes, I have asthma and chemical smells are a trigger. People overuse them in the fear that they might smell a bit human, even though it’s not that hot and they are not doing anything strenuous. Likewise, bleach used routinely as a cleaner. Not necessary. People in Spain use it to clean the pavement outside their house to get rid of dog pee smells. I prefer the dog pee smell myself. Besides, the authorities here have told everyone they must use a mixture of white vinegar, washing-up liquid and water to clean up after their dog. Few are doing it, but it will mask the smell of dog pee, while not having a strong smell itself. My bugbear is airport duty free areas, which you are forced to walk through and which reek of perfumes. There’s definitely more chemically pings about these days. scouser58

In terms of the absolute buildup of volatile organic molecules with some sort of olfactory response in humans, I doubt there is much difference over the decades since we started perfuming everything to cover up other smells. Many, if not most, of these compounds are degraded by microbial activity, dissolve in or are removed from the atmosphere by rain and generally don’t have a long atmospheric residence time. The long-term impact of agricultural practices in producing smelly sulphur and ammonia compounds (including hydrogen sulphide – bad egg smell), I would also suggest is limited in terms of the concentration of these compounds in the atmosphere because, again, they tend to be dissolved in rain and washed from the atmosphere. There are probably good data on this, since these compounds do contribute to harmful atmospheric conditions, so are subject to monitoring. Drspeedy

I have been wondering this recently because it doesn’t seem possible to be able to find fresh air anywhere. It can feel like there are pockets of smells, mostly exhaust fumes and other unpleasant odours, that seem to penetrate the nostrils and from which you do not seem to able to escape from. So yes, I would definitely say the world is getting smellier and unfortunately not in a “fresh-cut grass” way. Katherine Vidler, Bedfordshire

This is a fascinating topic. I’m not sure if the world is getting smellier, or whether we simply indulge in various smells more as we grow older. When I was younger, I always thought that men with perfumes belonged in the silly corner. A surprising stance for a young gay male? Yes, and no. No, because loads of men with an ethnic background live in communities that shun whatever is not considered to be “masc”. As I grew older, wiser, and more aware of toxic masculinity and internal homophobia, I dropped that whole notion. I started to indulge in perfumes, home fragrances and other such products. My partner and I have a whole shelf of bottles that we swap between. The smell-a-thon doesn’t stop there. We have four electric aromatherapy diffusers, and spend a great deal of cash on everything from extra fragrance for our laundry to “nice smelling bin liners”, anti-pet-odour products, extra fragrance liquids for our floor mop, carpet cleaner. The list goes on. I guess, leaving our smell-obsessed home, the world outside is just as “focused” on that business. In retail, you use fragrance to lure people into more shopping. Post smoke bans being introduced in the hospitality industry, pubs invested in various “ambience” solutions because, all of a sudden, you could smell the people who visit the pubs! We go to great lengths to camouflage what toilets smell like by default. I’m scared of thinking about how much we spend on making things smell “better”. Not to mention the sustainability aspect of the products, packaging, etc. Reflection is probably in order. Are we vain or reality-shy? Are we addicted? What are we trying to achieve by creating alternative realities of what things actually smell like? If I take our laundry out of the washing machine, and it doesn’t smell of heavens galore, it feels like something is wrong! Hi, I’m Adam; I’m a smell-o-holic! AdamStoffski

I have no doubt that if I were to gift you a time-machine by which you could travel back, say, to Tudor England, the first thing you would notice would be the smell. No one brushed their teeth and so everyone you interacted with would have rotting teeth and malodorous breath. They would generally have rampant BO, as “personal hygiene” was not yet a thing, and the streets were open sewers, full of horse manure, dog and human excrement. Indeed, such was the stench in cities that in places like the UK, where there is a westerly prevailing wind, the settlements “downwind” of the cities were the poorer areas, which is why the east of places such as London and Glasgow are, historically, the areas of greatest depravation and poorer housing. The better-off folk would live to the west. Nowadays, you would be hard-pushed to detect any difference between the smell of East Ham and Kensington. Cransley

It was smoke from coal fires blowing east on the prevailing wind that made the West End of London the posh bit, not crotch and armpit odours as your comment infers. rumblestrips

Historically, though, it’s worth noting that when westerners encountered cleaner cultures there was a lot noted down about the terrible body odour. The Japanese especially were horrified by western bathing habits and the accompanying body smells. Thomas1178

The world has definitely become smellier, in a synthetic chemical way. I’m hypersensitive to perfume smells, cleaning products, chemical air “fresheners” etc. It’s very difficult to avoid these and I have to avoid public places because of the fumes. I believe that one day people will look back on our age and marvel at the chemicals we exposed ourselves to and sprayed on. AdelphiaMae

The comments are so interesting. People complaining about fresh washing and people using perfumes, huh! I think if we didn’t wash our clothes and wouldn’t use perfumes, the world would smell way worse. I don’t think the world has been “accumulating smell” in the sense the question is asked, I think most newer things are simply replacing smells of other things we no longer use. For instance, streets nowadays have more food shops and takeaways these days but we don’t have free-flowing sewage or horses any more so I think certain smells are just replaced rather than adding up. Hopefully electric vehicles will soon let us get rid of the smell of diesel engines soon. gipsymermaid

The questioner asks about the smell of the world, while everyone’s answers are concerned with western cities. Go to the slums in Mumbai in the 40C heat or the townships of large African cities, to refugee camps or countries in the midst of civil war, or even rural Britain after human waste has been spread on a maize field. We are 8 billion people with many billions of livestock animals living in chaotic civilisations. We stink. wormwood20

I’d say smells are more subtle than they were, say, in Victorian times when you had coal or coke or wood fires quite common, industrial chimneys, horse dung, animals in tiny back gardens, jumpers for goalposts, outside toilets or what passed for them, rivers used as garbage disposal chutes (don’t live downstream of the dyers) small fluffy kittens and carts disposing of a city’s night soil (your excrement and urine) for distribution to local farmers. My local paper in the 1850s followed a committee investigating the city’s sanitation and frequently came across open ditches of rotting animals and all manner of filth. It’s quite extraordinary. Say what you like about the Victorians, they began the great clean up. MichaelofNorwich

At which point I would like to mention the plight of the people who live near swine lagoons, industrial chicken farms, and slaughterhouses that provide meat-eaters with their food. Their communities have horrifically high rates of asthma, all kinds of skin issues, allergic reactions etc and, in the United States, are overwhelmingly communities of colour. As with so many types of pollution, we didn’t really do away with it or solve it. We concentrated it in certain places – among the poorest and/or most disfranchised – so we could still enjoy the benefits – cheap meat – without the smell. Thomas1178

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