Determinants of human olfactory performance: a cross-cultural study

Sci Total Environ. 2015 Feb 15;506-507:196-200. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2014.11.027. Epub 2014 Nov 19.


Olfaction allows us to detect subtle changes in our environment, but sensitivity of the sense of smell varies among individuals. Although a significant number of research papers discuss the relationship between olfactory abilities and environmental factors, most studies have been conducted on Western populations or in developed Asian societies. The potential environmental and cultural determinants of olfactory acuity warrant further exploration. In the current study, we compared previously published data on olfaction in an industrialized, modern society (i.e., Europeans) and an indigenous society living in unpolluted, natural environmental conditions (i.e., Tsimane'), with novel data on the olfactory acuity of inhabitants of the Cook Islands. Like the European population (and contrary to the Tsimane'), the Cook Islands people form a modern society, and like the Tsimane' population (and contrary to the Europeans), they live in an unpolluted region. Thus, these comparisons enabled us to independently assess the importance of both air pollution and changes in lifestyle for olfactory abilities in modern societies. Our results indicate that people from the Cook Islands had significantly higher olfactory acuity (i.e., lower thresholds of odor detection) than did Europeans and Tsimane' people. Interestingly, the olfactory sensitivity of Europeans was significantly lower than the olfactory sensitivity of the remaining two groups. Our data suggest that air pollution is an important factor in the deterioration of the sense of smell. However, it is also possible that factors such as agricultural and/or cooking practices, alcohol consumption, and access to medical service may also influence olfactory acuity.

Keywords: Air pollution; Cook Islands; Environment; Olfactory sensitivity; Tsimane'; “Sniffin' Sticks”.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Air Pollution / statistics & numerical data
  • Cross-Cultural Comparison*
  • Europe
  • Humans
  • Industry / trends
  • Odorants*
  • Polynesia
  • Sensory Thresholds
  • Smell*