People no longer turn up their noses at scientific significance of smells

November 21, 1993|By Lou Carlozo | Lou Carlozo,Chicago Tribune

CHICAGO -- What with the growing national stink over smoke, perfume and other now-questionable odors, it appears that the era of nasal correctness has arrived.

About time, says a Chicago-area researcher who has long worked in obscurity to get some respect for the poor cousin of the five senses: smell.

Dr. Alan R. Hirsch directs the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Center in Chicago's Water Tower Place shopping mall -- appropriately only a few floors above vast scent-laden cosmetic counters that have produced skirmishes in the aroma wars.

A self-described "compulsive guy" who keeps about 200 vials of scents on his desk -- varieties such as "roasting meat" as opposed to cologne -- Dr. Hirsch provides one window on society's increasing interest in the medical and cultural significance of smell.

He has seen his caseload increase as such issues have wafted into the national consciousness, including growing attention to multiple chemical sensitivity, a malady produced by chemical odors.

In Chicago, restaurants including Charlie Trotter's and Jimmy's Place discreetly sniff their patrons, segregating the overscented from the rest of the dining public.

In the past year, San Francisco and Oakland, Calif., have adopted policies barring wearers of heavy perfume from government meetings.

But whether toilet water represents an assault or a salve depends on your point of view. Paris transit officials recently uncorked plans to pump perfume into their subways in hopes of smothering the underground stench of urine, tobacco and trash.

Dr. Hirsch has two theories about why the public is paying increased attention to smell. One is environmental: "There's renewed interest in how odor impacts our state of well-being, our moods."

Dr. Hirsch thinks industry will respond with more products such as the recently developed Japanese alarm clock that sprays a flowery smell into the air before bedtime.

The other theory is sensual.

"Freud thought we had to repress our sense of smell to remain a civilized society." Dr. Hirsch said. "Maybe society is rebelling against this repression."

At least children seem to be. "The Stinky Book," a new "Scratch 'N' Retch" volume by Noah Lukas, features sniff samples of bad breath, dead fish, smelly feet and a puddle of vomit. Just in time for the holidays.

For the past eight years, Dr. Hirsch has studied such phenomena as phantosmia (the problem of smelling odors that aren't there) and olfactory reference syndrome (the problem of smelling body odors that aren't there).

Many of the tools Dr. Hirsch uses would look more at home in a science fiction movie than in a doctor's office. He rubs banana-flavored "smell pens" under his patients' nostrils. Subjects in his experiments climb into a large sealed booth called the "odor chamber." Dr. Hirsch agrees that it bears an uncanny resemblance to the "orgasmatron" in Woody Allen's movie "Sleeper."

"With smell loss, people make fun of it," said Dr. Hirsch, citing a recent Jay Leno routine on "The Tonight Show." "He did a fake commercial about the 'Miracle Nose.' You'd never imagine people doing that with hearing or sight loss."

Dr. Hirsch, who received his medical degree from the University of Michigan in 1979, has written extensively on smell and had his work published in magazines ranging from Chicago Medicine and the International Journal of Aromatherapy to Food Technology and Headache.

He did his residency in neurology at Rush-Presbyterian-St. Luke's Medical Center and is on the faculty there.

Academics sometimes look askance at Dr. Hirsch's research because it is funded mostly by pharmaceutical firms and fragrance houses. But he said he went private to escape the academic bureaucracy.

"It's easier to explore things," Dr. Hirsch said. In academia, because smell research falls between neurology and psychiatry, there's some real turf wars."

Last year, Congress appropriated $250,000 to study multiple chemical sensitivity, whose symptoms include fatigue, short-term memory loss and breathing problems.

"It's hard for people to understand," said Jimmy Rohr, a multiple chemical sensitivity sufferer and owner of Jimmy's Place. For two years, Mr. Rohr politely asked patrons making reservations by phone to leave behind the perfume and cologne or dine elsewhere.

Mr. Rohr said he decided to lift his ban on smoking and perfumes in January because he was losing too much business; $140,000 in one year, he said.

"Hear that?" he said in a raspy voice. "It's from a lady who came in five minutes ago with perfume. Now I'll be suffering for it."

Dr. Hirsch, who has studied victims of multiple chemical sensitivity, believes the problem lies in part with Pavlovian conditioning.

Sniff an odor, have a sickening experience about the same time, and soon the odor alone may trigger a symptom, even if it wasn't the cause in the first place.

He thinks that taken too far, a push to eliminate chemical scents could produce a backlash.

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