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The Dangerous Illusion Of Reassuring Smells
by Mark on 6/24/2005 (0)

The fresh scent of...chemical warfare?
There's something about the smell of a new car. To many people, the leathery, plasticky aroma that hits you when you slide behind the wheel is a pleasurable scent. Seductive. Perhaps even addictive.

Exactly what gives rise to new car smell? The answer, not surprising to chemists, is a complex mixture of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), primarily alkanes and substituted benzenes along with a few aldehydes and ketones.

Individual components of new car smell probably aren't harmful at the concentrations found in cars, but the cumulative effects of long-term exposure to the total mix of VOCs could pose health problems, so be sure to open the windows for a few months to avoid harmful concentrations.

Like the clean smell of household bleach? Nothing quite cuts mildew and kills fecal bacteria in showers like bleach. But the "fresh" scent you smell is chlorine gas, widely used in World War I as a weapon to kill enemy troops.

Bleach is produced by combining chlorine and sodium hydroxide, also known as caustic soda. This combination forms sodium hypochlorite, the active ingredient in bleach. Household bleach is a 5.25% solution of sodium hypochlorite and 94.75% water. Bleach kills bacteria through an oxidizing process, which is also why it whitens. This disinfecting action kills flu and common cold germs, strep and staph infections, and Salmonella, and E Coli. On its own, bleach releases chlorine gas into the air, which destroys oxygen, making it necessary to avoid its fumes.

And what about the reassuring smell of newly sprayed liquid lawn fertilizer?

Contrary to what lawn "care" companies would like people to believe, herbicides (weed killers) and other pesticides are not "magic bullets". They are broad spectrum biocides, and by their very nature can harm organisms other than targeted species. This includes homeowners and their families, neighbors, pets, and all other forms of life.

So what's the lesson here?

Smell has a very powerful effect on the human psyche, and we seem prone to attach optimism, success and even redeeming social value to certain smells, entirely oblivious to the reality that they can be harmful to our health.

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