Friday, March 07, 2008


The stinking fuss about stench in two city barangays (formerly barrio, in Spanish) reminds me of an anecdotal court case whose outcome swung on the testimony of an expert witness. The prosecution witness had a reputed ability to distinguish odors of a wide range of chemicals and substances. He was to identify and pinpoint the source of the foul and obnoxious odors permeating a certain locality.
The wily defense team neutralized the expert’s testimony with simple cunning. Asked to identify two common liquids contained in separate receptacles, the expert sniffed the first substance proffered and promptly identified it as gasoline, but thereafter failed to identify the second. The defense had deadened his sense of smell with the first whiff. Chicanery may win court cases, but firms polluting the air with repulsive vapors emanating from putrid wastes and effluents to save costs cannot mask or neutralize the wafting stink.
Household deodorants being marketed do not really remove odors as ads imply, but merely mask the unwanted odor with a stronger aroma. There are three basic ways to get rid of undesirable odors: masking them with stronger scents, such as the ubiquitous lemon and pine fragrances; chemically dissolving or absorbing them with activated charcoal, baking soda or silica gel; and numbing out the nose. In the past, air-freshener products in the last category used formaldehyde or its solid version, paraformaldehyde, which is known as both poisonous and carcinogenic. The Monsanto company later developed a somewhat less lethal nasal anesthetic (the precise formulation is secret), which has since been incorporated into some air-fresheners along with the usual masking fragrances.

Some firms deny making use of a nasal anesthetic, saying that their products employ a combination of masking fragrances and odor counteractants which is curiously, the similar-sounding term malodor counteractant used in scientific journals, a code word for nasal anesthetic.
The sense of smell is a potent means of animal communication. Many animal species emit smell signals called pheromones for luring mates, marking territory, deceiving enemies, or detecting prey and predators.
Compared to animals, humans are poor sniffers. The rabbit has 100 million cells in its nose used for smelling, and German shepherd dogs have 200 million, 44 times the number that humans possess. The intense sniffing ability of dogs (canines or its militarized homophone K-9) is employed by police to sniff and detect contraband drugs and explosives or track fugitives or lost children. A late news item carried the story of Scooby, an ace sniffer dog about to retire. The 7-year-old Labrador was so successful that drug dealers took out a contract on his life and that of his owner.
Late news (March 2008): Wine Taster's Nose Insured for Millions. His schnoz is not to be sniffed at. The nose of leading European winemaker and taster Ilja Gort has been insured for euro5 million ($8 million), Lloyd's of London said. Gort, 47, said his nose is essential for him to produce top quality wines at his Chateau de la Garde vineyard in the famous Bordeaux region of France, so he got it insured. The custom-made policy covers Gort for the loss of either his nose or his sense of smell and has some unusual conditions.
The insurance contract includes a list of what Gort considers "old-fashioned rules" to protect his nose. The Dutchman is not allowed to ride a motorcycle or be a boxer, knife thrower's assistant or a fire-breather. "I may not fight against Mike Tyson," Gort said.
To humans, a chemical compound to possess an odor must pass into the nasal cavity, directly above which are olfactory bulbs with projecting hair (tiny nerve fibers) that receive smell impulses and relay them to the brain. The exact mechanism is not known. One theory is that the aromatic molecules dissolve in the fluid of the cavity lining and bathe the sensory cells. Another is that gas comes into direct contact with the sub-microscopic cell hairs that penetrate the mucous layer.
The ability to smell a particular substance depends on the concentration of its presence in the air. Higher temperatures and moisture intensifies the smell. Thresholds of detection for different substances vary. For example, expressed in milligrams per thousand cubic meters, for a large room of 35,000 cubic feet in volume are:
feces (skatole) is 0.0004,
rotten cabbage (mercaptan) is 0.04,
rancid butter (butyric acid) is 1.0.
Malodorous mercaptan, considered the worst odor ever compounded, was at one time added to cooking gas to give warning of dangerous leaks. This practice was discontinued when odorous liquid petroleum gas (LPG) in cylinders was marketed.
The paucity of odor words in the vocabulary of most languages is obvious when attempting to describe a scent. A redolent thing assumes the bouquet of a flower or fruit, such as jasmine, rose, orange, lemon, apple, vanilla, and vulgar terms for substances reeking obnoxious odors: rotten egg, fishy, flatus.
Though many aromas are described in terms of fruit scent, there is one fruit that defies description with widely divergent and passionate views expressed, ranging from highly appreciative to deep disgust. The durian fruit that grows in Southeast Asia’s equatorial belt, (the Sulu archipelago in the Philippines) has a flavor and aroma that elicits the full spectrum of odor: cream-cheese, onion-sauce, sherry-wine, pig-shit, turpentine and onions garnished with a gym sock, French custard passed through a sewer. These are the kind words. The aroma of the fruit is so powerful it is forbidden in tourist areas and in public transport of many countries.
Odors often attain meanings that noses cannot sense. Fishy means an article or action that is questionable or suspicious. Stink is a public outcry over something offensive. And if something “stinks to high heavens”, the scope of suspicion becomes enormous, blatant, and flagrant.
Modern chemistry has made great strides in two fields affecting human lives: in food flavors and in perfumes and aromatics. Analysis of chemical components of the aromatics in foods and botanical fragrances enabled chemists to synthesize chemicals mimicking the scent of practically all flavors and fragrances.
In food labs, essential oils of various foods can be duplicated – alcohols (menthol), aldehydes (cinnamon), esters (lavender), ethers (aniseed), ketones (dill), phenols (cloves). These synthetics are now routinely added to natural products as blend or augmentation, and even to replace entirely as imitation.
The other field of fragrance magic is in perfumes, a word derived from Latin per fumus (through smoke). If wild animals have their pheromones, sophisticated man, or more aptly, alluring woman, has perfume as lure.
The art of perfumery is traced as far back as the pharaohs of ancient Egypt. Its history mentions the scents of Cleopatra, the frankincense and myrrh of the three Magi bringing gifts to the babe in Bethlehem, and both Napoleon and Josephine are known fanciers.
The perfume business has spread to practically all countries as ingredient suppliers or as users of colognes and eau de toilette. A good perfume is said to have 10 to 50 ingredients blended from natural oils, synthetics (aromatic chemicals), and fixatives to bind the mixture. Animal fixatives, whose purpose is to slow down the evaporation of the more volatile oils, includes ambergris from whales, musk from musk deer and civet from wildcats. The fragrance of ylang-ylang is the Philippine contribution, said to be an ingredient of renowned perfumes made by Yves St. Laurent.
There are five standard methods of capturing essences from nature: distillation, expression, maceration, enfleurage, and volatile solvents process. But there are fragrances such as the lily and lilac that cannot successfully be made to yield their natural oils. Modern chemistry intervened, first probing the composition of natural fragrances and eventually compounding substances resembling those of nature. One such chemical was used in a popular brand: Chanel no. 5.
The creation of a good perfume is finally the result of the artistry of a master perfumer blending by trial and error for as long as a year, and adding such ethereal qualities as appeal, taste, originality, and theme.
An amusing story was in the news recently. A cheap imitation fragrance named Viagra, a concoction of ingredients that even its owner does not know, has been sued by the makers of the popular drug with that patented name. Some people just do not accept the saying that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery.
Despite the huge market of fragrances in the food and perfume fields, they share a miniscule one-fifth of total manufacture. Most are used to scent consumer goods such as medicinal ointments and unguents, detergents, and even cars to provide the illusion of freshness.


Aromatherapy is the practice of using volatile plant oils, including essential oils, for psychological and physical well-being. Perfume oils are not the same as essential oils. Perfume oils and fragrances contain chemicals that do not provide the claimed therapeutic benefits of essential oils.
The modes of application of aromatherapy, predominantly topical applications for general massage, baths, compresses, therapeutic skin care, but also include aerial diffusion for environmental or aerial disinfection, direct inhalation for respiratory disinfection, decongestion, expectoration as well as psychological effects, and
oral, rectal, vaginal interfaces for infection, congestion, parasites, perfumery for body fragrancing, anointments
In the English-speaking world, practitioners tend to emphasize the use of oils in massage, and aromatherapy tends to be regarded as a complementary modality at best and a pseudoscientific fraud at worst.
One of the most comprehensive investigations done to date on aromatherapy failed to show any improvement in either immune status, wound healing or pain control among people exposed to two often-touted scents. While one of two popular aromas touted by alternative medicine practitioners – lemon – (also the favored scent for dishwashing liquid soap and deodorants) did appear to enhance moods positively among study subjects, the other – lavender – had no effect on reported mood, based on three psychological tests.
Neither lemon nor lavender showed any enhancement of the subjects’ immune status, nor did the compounds mitigate either pain or stress, based on a host of biochemical markers.
A favorite expletive of General “Bull” Schwarkoff (B.S.) of desert Storm fame was “bovine scatology”, abbreviated B.S. (commonly known as bullshit). His use of the term was military parlance, not in reference to odors. But whosoever gets downwind of skatole will surely get the urge to use an equally expressive civilian expression.
I once had a lively discussion with an agent of a food company who was trying to persuade our neighborhood to allow his company to set up shop nearby, on a lot that encroached into an area declared as a residential zone. His plea was based on the non-pollutive quality of the product (a food item) and the unobtrusive nature of the processing (repackaging).
The attempt to dialog was in itself extraordinary, in contrast to the habitual arrogance of firms contemptuous of community sensitivities. After his spiel, I asked a pointed question: if the product is organic and will therefore spoil, and spillage is unavoidable, what assurance can the company give that the sanitation and cleanup procedures will prevent putrification, considering the lack of a nearby public sewer for dumping their waste water? He has not returned with an answer.
The dialog may have averted a potential incompatibility conflict and discord similar to the furor caused in Barangays Gusa and Tablon. It was also a sign that public displeasure over effluvia has made business firms aware that they can no longer thumb their noses at public feelings. For whenever there is aroma waft in the air, be it from dung or lady fair, the nose knows.


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