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Monique Keiran: Human sniffers help make air-quality tracking more accurate

A city’s smellscape changes as we move out and about, depending on where we are, the time of day, and the time of year.
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The eau-de-toilet from the new sewage-treatment plant at McLoughlin Point regularly fumes out Work and Macaulay points, writes Monique Keiran. VIA CAPITAL REGIONAL DISTRICT

Victoria has its own particular smellscape.

If you’re near Ship Point during a ­weekday morning rush hour, when the float planes are taking off and landing constantly, airplane-exhaust fumes waft through the streets. Downwind of Highway 1 reeks of vehicle exhaust in the late afternoons.

If your morning walk takes you past storm-drain outlets on Hollywood Crescent or Beach Drive by Willows Beach, the air may be redolent of somebody’s breakfast — fried eggs and bacon, perhaps — or of sewer gas.

These days, the pong of pot smoke can skunk almost any place at any time. Wood smoke may be the odour-du-soir on a winter evening, while Gonzalez Beach on a July afternoon may be rank with rotting seaweed.

We know that odours can affect quality of life, trigger property values to tank, and cause considerable outlays of cash to control them. Just ask the Central Saanich residents who vowed in 2013 to Stop the Stink of a compost facility located in their community. The facility’s stench prompted letter-writing campaigns and municipal and community lawsuits. (It’s now a cannabis-production facility, which might be a ­matter of ­exchanging one type of odoriferous ­experience for another.)

These days, the eau-de-toilet from the new sewage-treatment plant at McLoughlin Point regularly fumes out Work and Macaulay points. Pity the folks who live within the ­prevailing odour plume.

University of British Columbia ­environmental researchers say bad smells can also affect people’s health. The impacts can be both direct and indirect. Perfume and some other chemical smells can cause migraines in some people. A particular ­pungent aroma can trigger ye ol’ gag reflex.

Bad odours can keep people indoors or chase them outside. People may pass on working in the garden or going for walks or bike rides because of outdoor stenches. Aside from the loss of health benefits that comes from missing out on that exercise, the stress of living or working under a foul cloud can also affect health.

But identifying and quantifying stinks is challenging, the researchers say. Smell is subjective — some people love the scent of lavender or lilac, while other people think it resembles the smell of kitty wee.

Furthermore, a city’s smellscape changes as we move out and about. It depends on where we are, the time of day, and the time of year. Temperature, humidity and wind direction, as well as other molecules in the air, influence whiffs and sniffs and our ­perception of them.

One thing is clear, however. Despite our varying and very personal interpretations of smells and the sometimes hyper-local nature of odours, the typical human nose picks out nasty scents much more efficiently and effectively than the costliest, most sensitive chemistry-based machines and laboratory sensors do.

Across the moat, the Lower Mainland researchers have taken advantage of ­Vancouver’s own homegrown nose network to launch Smell Vancouver, a smartphone app that allows people to report their ­olfactory encounters. Along with noting the date and time of the smell-experience, ­residents rate the odour’s strength and offensiveness and describe the smell with terms like “burning,” “smoky,” “rotting,” “skunky” and “barnyard.”

They also note their symptoms and ­reactions to the smell in question, such as staying indoors or closing windows.

In the year since the launch, citizen ­scientists have submitted almost 600 smell reports.

The researchers are using the ­submissions to parse the region’s pongs and impacts. By combining the crowdsourced data with particle tracing, air-quality monitoring data, meteorological models and mobile monitoring, the research team can track smells to identify the region’s potential odour hotspots.

This coming year, the project will hit the road. The team will drive a sensor-equipped van around the city to investigate reported smelly hotspots and get to the sources of the stinks. The vehicle will measure volatile organic compounds, fine particles and air contaminants, such as carbon monoxide and ozone.

The combination of odour reports ­experienced by on-the-ground residents’ noses, mobile high-tech equipment, sensors and computer models makes air-quality tracking more precise and more accurate.

It also means that neighbourhoods no longer have to suffer the indignity of local stinks in silence. The resulting data will allow people to connect to policymakers and regulators to deal with smelly issues that impact health, well-being, property values and the urban environment.

keiran_monique@rocketmail.com