Friday, March 19, 2010

The Strange Smell of Ground Zero After 9/11

"She said the smell from the trade center residue came and went. When it was overcast, it was stronger, she added. 'It was not quite a fire smell. It was something extra. How can I describe it? It made your lips tingle.' "

The above quote is from a New York Times article titled, "The Scent - 20 Days Later, an Invisible Reminder Lingers." The thing this article got wrong is the "invisible" part because you could see the fumes coming from Ground Zero. They weren't invisible.

The thing the article got right was the difficulty people had describing the smell. Smells are unique. We don't have a descriptive vocabulary for smells like we do for sights. Let's pretend you see something that you don't understand. At the very least, you might be able to describe the color, size and shape. How do you describe a smell that you've never smelled before?

What would you say if, months after the attacks, the smell was as strong as ever?

From "Health News: Odors Conjure Up Awful 9/11 Memories"

"Odors have a strong impact on memory and emotions," says Dr. Alan Hirsch, neurological director of the Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation in Chicago. "When we look at different times in our history, we find different odors tend to induce flashbacks" in people with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

In the case of the World Trade Center, the point was not to induce frightening flashbacks but to somehow use the odors to aid the recovery process. Dalton and two of her staff members gained access to the cleanup site to collect odors. Preti then did the analysis of the samples. "It was my job to try to identify what they were and, once we identified them, we can reconstitute them."

A scientist who studies smells could not identify the smells. Question: Doesn't this mean that it was a weird smell? Isn't this the definition of a weird smell? If a smell professor can't identify it, it's a strange thing, indeed.

No comments:

Post a Comment