Osmics and the Theory of Odors
Did you know that osmics is the field that studies the olfactory sense and odors? Given the role that odors play in customer satisfaction with restoration and cleaning jobs, it's critical to better understand humans' perception of odors.

In spite of the importance the sense of smell plays in our daily lives, we know surprisingly little about it. We have difficulty describing an odor except by comparing it to a more familiar odor. Though we can measure sound in decibels and light in lumens, we have no objective yardstick with which to measure the strength of odors.

The human olfactory sense, baffles scientists in its ability to sort out and characterize complex compounds. Many of these compounds require the use of expensive equipment to analyze scientifically, but the nose identifies them instantly — and can do so for concentrations as small as a ten-millionth of a gram.

When we consider the nature of our olfactory system, we realize that for us to smell a material, the material must have certain properties.

First, it must be volatile. A substance such as onion soup cooking, for example, is highly odorous because it continuously gives off vapor that can reach the nose. On the other hand, a substance such as iron is completely odorless because it is not volatile and does not evaporate molecules into the air.

Second, an odor-bearing molecule must be soluble in water even if only to a small degree. If it is not water soluble, it will be barred from reaching nerve endings by the watery film that covers their surface.

The third common property of odor-bearing substances is that they are soluble in lipids or fatty substances, which enables them to penetrate the nerve endings through the lipid layer that forms part of the surface membrane of every cell.

The final common property is that the odor-bearing molecules must be customarily absent from the nasal tissue. Individuals can become acclimated to odors. The baker does not smell the baking bread, for example, and the barista at the coffee shop does not smell the brewing coffee.

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Adapted from Restoration Science Academy’s The Complete Guide to Restorative Drying, a collection of all RSA classroom course materials, including water damage restoration, fire and smoke restoration, odor control, microbial remediation, trauma scene cleanup, upholstery and fabric cleaning, and carpet cleaning. Authors: Gary Funari, Gary Loiben and William Weigand. Technical Review: Mitchell Byrom, Mark Cornelius, Mike Kerner and David Oakes.