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Air Pollution Odor Diaries

Unpleasant odors can be a warning sign of potential risks to human health. Sometimes people can smell certain chemicals in the air before they are at harmful levels. Community members have reported that smelling odors in the air decreases their quality of life and sense of wellbeing.

Odors from environmental sources might also cause health symptoms, depending on individual and environmental factors. Those factors can include age, sex, medical condition, and the level and type of the substance in the environment.

Odor Diary Overview

Odor diaries [PDF - 8 KB] help document important information. In your odor diary, you will answer these questions:

  • What kind of odor did you smell?
  • How strong was the odor?
  • When was the odor worse?
  • How did weather conditions affect the odor?
  • How did the odor affect your health and activities?

Odor diaries are easy to fill out, and they can produce useful information in as little as 2 weeks. Odor diary collection efforts work best if they are organized by state and local health departments.

ATSDR’s Get Involved to Reduce Environmental Odors in Your Community Presentation [PDF - 971 KB] contains some helpful information about odor diaries, such as how they can help health departments develop health messages about environmental odors. The presentation also provides information about common sources of environmental odors and symptoms caused by odors.

State and local health departments and communities can use odor diaries to assess effects, develop ideas, and suggest actions to address the odors. Specific odor diary uses are listed below.

Please DO NOT send completed odor diaries to ATSDR for review.

Odor Diary Uses

Local environmental and health agencies can assess a community’s response to odors using residents’ odor diaries. These can reveal similarities or differences in

  • the nature of the odor that triggered a response (i.e., what type of smell people record most frequently),
  • when odors are worse, and
  • whether odors correlate to specific weather conditions, times of day or season, or personal activities, like jogging and gardening.

Completed odor diaries can provide evidence that can be used in making decisions about odors.

  • Odor diaries support suggestions on ways to address odor problems:
    • Restrictions on zoning or operating times of day or night
    • Activities to reduce emissions, such as preventing odors from being generated or planting trees
    • Using technology to capture, destroy, disperse, or disguise odors before they are released to the environment
  • Odor diary results can be used for further analysis or sampling:
    • To narrow the list of chemicals to sample
    • To determine the best times and locations to sample
    • To compare with sampling results to see if responses match. For example
      • Did odor diary results and sampling results both find high concentrations of the odor in the air?
      • Did both find odor problems in the same location or at the same times of day?
  • Information in odor diaries can help community members determine what personal actions they can take to cope with the odors:
    • Staying indoors if environmental odors are strong that day
    • Exercising indoors
    • Leaving the area for a few hours, if possible.

Odor Diary Examples

References and Resources

Chemela C, Riesenmey C, Batton-Hubert M, Vaillant H. Odour-impact assessment around a landfill site from weather-type classification complaint inventory and numerical simulation. Journal of Environmental Management 2012;93:85–94.

Hadrich J, Wolf C. Citizen complaints and environmental regulation of Michigan livestock operations. Journal of Animal Science 2011;89:277-86.

Munoz R, Sivret E, Parcsi G, Lebrero R, Wang X, Suffet IH, Stuetz R. Monitoring techniques for odour abatement assessment. Water Research 2010;44:5129–49.

Schiffman SS, Williams CM. Science of odors as a potential health issue. Journal of Environmental Quality. 2005; 34:129–38.

Steinheider B. Environmental odours and somatic complaints. International Journal of Hygiene & Environmental Medicine. 1999 Aug; 202:101–19.

Schiffman SS, Gutierrez-Osuna R, Nagle TH. Measuring odor intensity with e-noses and other sensor types. Proceedings of the 9th International Symposium on Olfaction and Electronic Nose; 2002 Sep 29–Oct 2; Rome, Italy. Available at [PDF - 174 KB