Sunday, September 2, 2007

A Nose for Survival - Smell Your Way to Safety

Ahh the smell of freshly baked bread, ribs on the barbeque or a summer storm ... they grab our attention, transport us to another place and time, evoking distant memories. All because of VOCs - Volatile Organic Compounds sensed by receptors in our noses, triggering the most primative and basic of human emotional and memory responses. We carry in our noses a powerful analytical laboratory capable of spotting minute traces of organic chemicals and identifying conditions critical to our survival.

It's no accident that our olfactory sense is the one that is most powerfully linked to the emotions that trigger us to act - flight, fight, pursue food or sex. For millions of years our ancestors used this sense above all others as an early warning system to keep us safe, supplied with food and equipped for survival. Everything we breathe, eat or touch is sampled and tested when trace amounts of it pass through our noses.

The EPA monitors VOC levels in the air, and regulates industry to limit VOC emissions. This is good, as it reduces the "soup" of solvents and other toxic organic molecules that attack our lungs, membranes and skin every day. It is somewhat blind, however, as all VOCs are NOT created equal, even though they are lumped together for regulation sake. It is doubtful that many people die each year from bakery emissions, but in some regions bakery aroma VOCs are regulated just as chemical plant, body-shop and glue solvents are. In fact, everything you can smell, from roses to rotten eggs, you detect due to VOCs- airborne organic molecules that you inhale.

In our modern technocentric world we learn to ignore our noses and judge things by eye and ear; this can be our downfall. A fire in the attic, a lethal infection, a bio-terror attack, a toxic chemical accident - all these events are likely to be evident from odor before they are lethal. These things DO happen, though not every day; when they do, we won't likely see or hear them. If we pay attention to our noses, and alert ourselves to danger as our ancient ancestors did, we may well survive due to our ability to smell our way to safety.

No comments: