Smell something funky? UBC researchers want to borrow your nose

December 22, 2021
Smell something funky? UBC researchers want to borrow your nose
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“Rotting waste, garbage cheese, pungent vinegar, death, fresh vomit.”

That’s how one person described an odour they detected in Vancouver, in a report submitted to the Smell Vancouver project.

While the odour sounds particularly unpleasant, Sahil Bhandari, one of the University of British Columbia researchers behind the project, said the team is looking for any odour reports — including the smell of something you like, in Metro Vancouver.

Smell Vancouver launched a year ago so researchers could study the region’s air pollution and its ties to the odours our noses can detect. They’re working to identify smelly hotspots, the sources of the odours, and what health effects those odours may be associated with.

“I think historically, odour has been seen more on the nuisance side of things,” said Bhandari, a post-doctoral fellow with UBC’s department of mechanical engineering. “As the odour gets worse, you start having these psychological issues, you start having physiological responses.”

The team has received about 600 reports since the project went online — but they’re looking for far more than that as they head into their second year of study.

As they continue to fill out the map of the region’s “smellscape,” the team will dispatch a special mobile monitoring van, outfitted with instruments to measure pollutants.

The researchers will then be able to map the chemicals detected in the air and locate the sources.

So far the project has turned up a cluster of reports in Delta — which Bhandari ties to compost facilities as well as cannabis production facilities — and a high number of reports from Vancouver’s more densely populated neighbourhoods. 

According to Bhandari, when there are more people living in an area, they’re likely to get more reports, but in East Vancouver, a cluster of reports is likely tied to meat rendering facilities.

UBC Student Davi de Ferreyro Monticelli is pictured with the Smell Vancouver team’s mobile van, which can measure chemicals in the air. (Smell Vancouver)

So far, odours of garbage — including compost — top the list of reports, followed by chemicals, which is a broad category:

  • 21 per cent garbage
  • 17 per cent chemical
  • 12 per cent decaying animal
  • 11 per cent sewage
  • 11 per cent smoke

To submit a report, anyone can got to the project’s website and fill out a form with information about location, date, how offensive and strong the odour smells, possible source and other details.

By 2023, Bhandari said the team is hoping to be able to model air quality impacts by specific facilities associated with odour hotspots — information they’ll be able to share with the public and Metro Vancouver.


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