Home > Uncategorized > Meanwhile, back at the rancid…

Meanwhile, back at the rancid…

What’s worse than an overwhelming bad smell?  A far milder bad smell that just goes on and on.  One that strenghtens and weakens unpredictably so you can’t get used to it or track down its source.  One that in a strange way is almost pleasant, throwing its worse qualities into relief.  One that drives you crazy trying to figure out what it is and where it’s coming from.

I’ve periodically encountered a scent like that over the past few years.  A strange, sickly-sweet smell, sometimes hovering on the edge of perception, sometimes surging in strength before fading again, only to surge again minutes later.  I went half-crazy trying to identify its source.  I couldn’t reliably get a whiff of it by deliberately trying to inhale; it was elusive, fading when I tried to get a good whiff that might help me track its source.  That made it harder to ignore, since I was actively trying to get a good whiff of the stench.  That’s insidious.  Moreover, it was a perception that seemed to concentrate more in the rear of my mouth and throat than in my nose; inhaling through the nose didn’t make much difference.

Because of its inconsistency, I couldn’t get anyone else to notice it.  I couldn’t for the life of me track down a source for it in my apartment, but it seemed to be strongest there — though sometimes it seemed to follow me elsewhere, as if it were on my clothes or something.  The first time it happened, I got one of those little scent-distributing electric-fan thingies to cover it up, and it just seemed to get worse, becoming a stinging sensation in my mouth.  But when I brought in the building manager to try to identify it, she smelled nothing.  I got to wondering if I might be hallucinating it, or if it might be a symptom of something going wrong inside my own mouth or nasal passages.

I later figured out that the original scent was gone, and the stinging I was experiencing actually came from the scent fan thingy, which used an alcohol-based fragrance.  My nasal and mouth membranes are very sensitive; alcohol burns them and its fumes sting them.  Since I was the only one affected that way, my manager didn’t notice the problem.  And the original scent was gone by then.  But that scent was so elusive, so hard to pin down and characterize, that I didn’t really realize it had been replaced with a different unpleasant smell/taste.  So I suspected I was imagining something no one else could smell.

But I went through many hypotheses in my quest to figure this out.  At one point, I got worried that it might be my carpets giving off formaldehyde or something.  But I couldn’t remember what formaldehyde smelled like.  So I went to the university’s chemistry building, found a professor, explained my situation, and asked if I could smell some formaldehyde.  Once she agreed, she took me through a rather scary, cramped room with shelves stacked with dangerous chemicals.  All it took was one whiff to rule out formaldehyde.  Which was reassuring, but still frustrating.

Part of the problem with identifying it, and part of what drove me so crazy about it, was that the smell was so strange that I couldn’t even think of a good way to describe it, to myself or anyone else.  I’m someone who needs to be able to understand, explain, and codify things, and particularly to put them into words.  So the very elusiveness of a description for the stench was as maddening as the sensory experience itself.

But finally I figured out enough of a description that I could tell the building owner about it.  It reminded me somewhat of decay and putrefaction, but only part of the scent I associate with that.  I’m not sure if this metaphor will make sense to everyone reading it, but if scents were like sounds, it would be as if it had the “high-pitched” aspects of decay smell but not the “deeper” aspects.  Or the “lighter” tones without the “darker” ones.  Putrefaction was actually the first impression I had when I first smelled it, but it was so odd and complex and I went through so many theories in my head that I lost track of that for a while.

Anyway, my description was enough to pin it down for the owner.  He explained that there’s a potato chip factory down the hill from here, and periodically they clean out their ovens, burning out the rancid cooking oil that’s accumulated there over months.  The vapors hang around the neighborhood for a week or two thereafter.  So what I’d been smelling was actually the vaporous residue of burned rancid animal fats.  Lovely.

The reason I bring this up is that apparently the potato chip factory has just cleaned out its ovens again.  The stink started yesterday and is pretty strong right now.  It’s more bearable now that I know what it is and where it’s coming from.  But it’s still frustrating knowing there’s nothing I can do to make it go away; I just have to put up with it until it fades.  And there’s still the mystery of how it gets into my apartment in the first place, given that I’ve had the windows closed.   But it’s not like the building’s totally airtight, I guess.

Hmm.  Might a better title for this post have been “Fetor late than never?”  Mmm… naah.

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Eli Berg-Maas
    March 26, 2012 at 11:17 am

    I went to college in Grand Forks, ND. The university there had a similar problem across the entire campus and I believe good parts of the town. It was a byproduct of the sugar beat processing plant they had along the north side of town. The prevailing winds blew the stench off in some basically empty direction but occasionally (and it was fairly rare, the weather tends to be consistent in North Dakota) it would make the whole area smell foul. I sometimes compared it to sulfur, but I believe it was some sort of alcohol. Nearly everyone knew about it though, so it didn’t create the same issues, and there was something of a feeling of solidarity about it whenever it happened.

    • March 26, 2012 at 11:37 am

      Actually, I think I was wrong in this post about what the bad smell was. I’ve since discovered that I’ve gotten the same smell on my clothes when I’ve been on vacation in various places. I’m pretty sure now it’s some kind of perfume used in detergents, possibly even just the smell of bleach, because I’ve determined it’s correlated with staying in a guest room next to the laundry room, with visiting the pool area in a hotel, and possibly with an occasion when I opened a box of detergent with bleach inside my apartment. I must just be hypersensitive to that particular smell. Which means I’m unlikely to be able to get away from it for good, ever.

      The counterargument, though, is that this never happened to me until I moved to my own apartment. So it’s unlikely to be bleach itself, unless my sense of smell has somehow changed. Maybe it’s some new ingredient that detergent and cleaning-solution makers have begun using in recent years.

      Or it could be that I’m dealing with two different bad smells that just affect me similarly, and I confuse them. They’re both so elusive and hard to describe that I could be getting them mixed up in my mind.

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