Symptom prevalence and odor-worry interaction near hazardous waste sites

Environ Health Perspect. 1991 Aug:94:25-30. doi: 10.1289/ehp.94-1567940.


Retrospective symptom prevalence data, collected from over 2000 adult respondents living near three different hazardous waste sites, were analyzed with respect to both self-reported "environmental worry" and frequency of perceiving environmental (particularly petrochemical) odors. Significant positive relationships were observed between the prevalence of several symptoms (headache, nausea, eye and throat irritation) and both frequency of odor perception and degree of worry. Headaches, for example, showed a prevalence odds ratio of 5.0 comparing respondents who reported noticing environmental odors frequently versus those noticing no such odors and 10.8 comparing those who described themselves as "very worried" versus "not worried" about environmental conditions in their neighborhood. Elimination of respondents who ascribed their environmental worry to illness in themselves or in family members did not materially affect the strength of the observed associations. In addition to their independent effects, odor perception and environmental worry exhibited positive interaction as determinants of symptom prevalence, as evidenced by a prevalence odds ratio of 38.1 comparing headaches among the high worry/frequent-odor group and the no-worry/no-odor group. In comparison neighborhoods with no nearby waste sites, environmental worry has been found to be associated with symptom occurrence as well. Potential explanations for these observations are presented, including the possibility that odors serve as a sensory cue for the manifestation of stress-related illness (or heightened awareness of underlying symptoms) among individuals concerned about the quality of their neighborhood environment.

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Anxiety
  • California
  • Environmental Exposure
  • Environmental Health
  • Hazardous Waste / adverse effects*
  • Hazardous Waste / analysis
  • Humans
  • Odds Ratio
  • Odorants / analysis*
  • Perception


  • Hazardous Waste