I have never been a fan of deodorizers – air fresheners, scented candles, plug-ins, that kind of thing. They never seemed genuine to me. Why fill the room with volatile compounds that trick my olfactories into thinking the room is clean when I could, well, clean.
Then I got pets. And now I do more malodorous molecule masking then a tester at a Fabreze factory.
But whenever I use sprays, or diffusers, or apple-cinnamon scented whole-house bombs I am curious about what I am releasing into the air. It took awhile, but I finally found a deodorizer with the ingredients listed on the bottle. I can see why they aren’t typically listed. Ethyl Methylphenylglycidate doesn’t exactly conjure images of freshly laundered linens.
Most of the ingredients are esters. They can be identified by their –ate ending (as in the example above). Esters are known in the chemical world for their good scents (ha!). There is something about a carbon bound to two oxygens, tucked into a chain of other carbons that makes our olfactory glands sing.
When I was an undergraduate at the University of Florida I worked in the Organic Chemistry Lab stockroom. This was a great gig. I had a perch near a window that looked out over the lab. From this vantage point I could watch lab drama unfold - ether irrupting into flames, graduate students bursting into tears, Type A’s exploding over lost points. And every semester there were the unabashedly inept students. They would shuffle to the window and hand in an oily, yellow final produce. “Uh, you were supposed to synthesize a fine white powder.” They would just shrug and walk back to their bench; they didn’t care. I hate to brag, but it was a pretty glamorous job.
I was also responsible for preparing all of the solutions students needed during their lab. One preparation that I dreaded was for the Esterification Lab. The organic student had to distill an impure acid and then react the pure acid with an alcohol to convert it into an ester. Esters are lovely smelling compounds – bananas, pears, pineapple. The weak acids esters are derived from are not! You know how awful vinegar (acetic acid) smells when you open a bottle in your kitchen. You can smell it from all the way across your house. “Who opened the vinegar? Close that bottle, it reeks!” The acids I had to prep made acetic acid smell like bubble bath.
Whenever it was time to prepare these acids I made sure it didn’t occur on my shift. I cleaned all of the balances, restocked all the lab supplies, buffed the floors, anything to avoid the job. Except one time when I was not so crafty and I got stuck preparing and dispensing the worst two of all the smelly acids – valeric acid and butyric acid. In the literature Valeric is described as having a strong pungent, sweaty smell. Butyric is used to take down whaling ships. I kid you not. Here is a link to prove it.
I sat at a ventilation hood for four hours dispensing these horrible smelling substances, completely losing track of time. I also must have had the sash up a bit too high and apparently my olfactories were fried because I left the stockroom unaware of my own stench.
I walked out into the night air and across to a different building where I joined some fellow chemistry students. The students immediately began to question the source of a particularly foul odor. Since it had arrived at the exact same instant I had, it was not difficult to determine its origin.
These students did not have the same elite-behind-the-scenes stockroom job that I did so I could not convince them that it was the chemicals I was using in the lab. All I could do was walk away, leaving a sweaty, puke smell in my wake (the smell that is mostly likely connected to their memory of me to this day). I believe it is this experience that has left me so sensitive to volatile compounds – pleasant or otherwise – floating through my living space.