9 January 2002

Army Researching Stink Bombs

by Kate Melville

Department of Defense officials have asked researchers at the Monell Chemical Senses Center in Philadelphia to create a universally offensive odor that can be used by the military for, among other things, crowd control, according to an article in the January 7 issue of Chemical & Engineering News, the weekly newsmagazine of the American Chemical Society, the world's largest scientific society.

The non-lethal "odor bomb" is said to smell like rotting garbage, human waste and burning hair, according to the article's author, senior editor Maureen Rouhi, Ph.D. Tests show the putrid odors "are potent in making people want to flee in disgust," notes the article. The odors also cause shallow breathing, increased heart rate and can lead to nausea, it adds.

The researchers focused on biological odors "because we thought those had the best chance of being recognized universally," says Monell researcher Pamela Dalton, Ph.D. "People really hated these odors," she adds.

Monell is the world's first research institute devoted to the multidisciplinary study of the chemical senses.

Another area of smelly research at Monell involves body odor.

Monell chemist George Preti, Ph.D., has spent 30 years investigating such unpleasant human smells as underarm odor, bad breath and "fish odor syndrome," a genetic disease called trimethylaminuria. Fish odor syndrome can be devastating to people with extreme cases, notes the article. They can smell like fish regardless of how many times they bathe or change clothes.

Unfortunately, because trimethylaminuria can occur sporadically, doctors are not always able to diagnose the disease. However, Preti has a battery of tests he administers that can tell if a person has trimethylaminuria. Based on the results of the tests, Preti provides an extensive report that patients can then give to their doctors who can provide prescriptions for antibiotics to alleviate or reduce the smells.

Charles Wysocki, Ph.D., another Monell researcher, is working with Preti and the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture to lessen offensive farm odors. With more urban housing communities springing up near what were once isolated rural farm regions, complaints have increased from the new neighbors about the pungent smells of nearby mushroom and pig farms. The research is especially meaningful to the state given the importance of farms to Pennsylvania's economy.