Odor annoyance of environmental chemicals: sensory and cognitive influences

J Toxicol Environ Health A. 2008;71(11-12):776-85. doi: 10.1080/15287390801985596.


In low concentrations, environment pollutants like volatile organic compounds (VOCs) may be perceived via olfaction. Modulators of odor-mediated health effects include age, gender, or personality traits related to chemical sensitivity. Severe multi-organ symptoms in response to odors also characterize a syndrome referred to as idiopathic environmental intolerance (IEI). One prominent feature of IEI is self-reported odor hypersensitivity that is usually not accompanied by enhanced olfactory functioning. The impact of interindividual differences in olfactory functioning on chemosensory perceptions is sparsely investigated, and therefore this study addressed the influences of different types of modulators, including olfactory functioning. In a psychophysical scaling experiment, an age-stratified sample of 44 males and females was examined. After controlled application of nine concentrations of six chemicals by flow-olfactometry, the participants rated four olfactory and nine trigeminal perceptions. Weak effects were found for gender and age, as well as some modulating effects of self-reported chemical sensitivity and odor discrimination ability. For chemical sensitivity, the results were as expected: Subjects with higher sensitivity reported stronger perceptions. The individual odor threshold (n-butanol) exerted no influence on the subjects' ratings of olfactory and trigeminal perceptions. Surprisingly, above-average odor discrimination ability was associated with lower ratings of odor intensity and nausea. This particular aspect of olfactory functioning might be a reflection of a more objective odor evaluation model buffering emotional responses to environmental odors.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Air Pollutants / adverse effects*
  • Differential Threshold / drug effects
  • Dose-Response Relationship, Drug
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Irritants / adverse effects
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity / diagnosis*
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity / physiopathology
  • Multiple Chemical Sensitivity / psychology
  • Odorants*
  • Sensory Thresholds / drug effects
  • Smell / drug effects*
  • Trigeminal Nerve / drug effects
  • Trigeminal Nerve / physiology
  • Xenobiotics / adverse effects*


  • Air Pollutants
  • Irritants
  • Xenobiotics