The unpleasant odours generated by factories, livestock farms and landfills are warning signs of serious environmental problems. However, this type of pollution is largely forgotten by legislations. The chemical engineer Rosa Arias has decided to change this and has developed an app with which citizens can register the effluvia of their environment. Also, she is the leader of an European project that is preparing the first global odour map.
The chemical engineer Rosa Arias has been chosen by the EU to lead the D-Noses project, which plans to create a world map of smell with the help of citizen science. / David Fernández / SINC
Anxiety, headache, lack of concentration and sleep disturbances are some of the problems associated with daily exposure to bad odours. "It is the second cause of environmental complaint in the world, after noise. However, it doesn’t receive the attention it deserves from the competent authorities or from the world of industry, which, with its processes, is the main party responsible for these odour emissions," Rosa Arias (Barcelona, 1978) has commented to Sinc.
This chemical engineer has been working on odour-related problems since 2004 and trying to break into an area in which "everything is still to be done". Arias has been employed in two of the main consultancies dealing with the subject in Spain, but she eventually decided to act on her own, since these companies -she says- "have no interest in innovating".
A couple of years ago, she developed an app called OdourCollect, "that uses citizen science, the smartphones we always carry with us, and our nose, which is the best smell sensor that exists." Humans can distinguish around one billion different odours.
As a sense of defence that alerts us of dangers, it is highly developed. "For example, hydrogen sulphide, the main gas that causes the odour of rotten eggs in sewage treatment plants, is a lethal gas and our nose detects it at very low concentrations of less than 10 parts per billion (ppb), which is below the detection limit of many measuring devices”.
"The app," she explains, "is very simple. What it does is geolocate the user in space and time using the mobile phone, which means you can register a new smell in real time wherever you are. You also have the possibility to access the observations included by other people and even communicate with them to make a collaborative map of odours."
The researcher points out that "the largest number of odour complaints in Spain is due to waste treatment activities and sewage treatment plants because they are very close to the population."
She comments that "there are very few cases in which the industries or the municipalities involved carry out technical studies to confront the problem and, if there are any, they are closed and less than transparent. Citizens have no access to this environmental information, which is affecting them every day."
This was the reason that led her to develop the application. "I wanted to give citizens a tool that could empower them to not only access the data, but also generate them; to prove that there is a odour problem in their community and to demand action from those involved."
Her determination to bring this environmental problem to the foreground has made the EU award her with the leadership of the European D-Noses Project, along with the Ibercivis foundation of citizen science in Aragón. The goal, she says, "is to create a world map of smells with the help of data sent by people via OdourCollect."
The Odour Collect app allows citizens to register smells using smart phones. / Ibercivis
The project, which started last April, has a budget of 3.1 million Euros for a period of three years and "is the most ambitious odour pollution initiative in Europe and in the world," she stresses.
D-Noses is participated by fifteen partners, including experts in odour pollution from universities, civic associations and small companies from the environmental sector.
A total of nine countries will participate: Spain, the United Kingdom, Germany, Austria, Portugal, Greece, Bulgaria, Italy and Chile. Arias indicates that "there will be case studies of communities that are severely affected by this problem in these countries as well as in other countries in Africa and in different parts of the world."
"We are going to develop a world map of smells with the help of data sent by people via our app"
As she explains, "to begin with, the OdourCollect tool will collect the data that citizens generate in real time; the odour experts will be responsible for validating the different insights and will incorporate meteorological data and mathematical back-trajectory models to verify the origins of the smell".
Then, in collaboration with the environmental authorities and the emitting industries, we will study what was happening at the time of each validated observation, in order to find ways to reduce the nuisance; for example, applying good practices in the emitting industry or modifying the different operations in order to emit the odour in favourable dispersion conditions.
In addition, "the analysis of the information we obtain will help us to make recommendations, guides, the green book of odour pollution and the action plan for the next five to eight years", she adds. “The idea is to influence the environmental policies of the different countries and put odour pollution on the map. We also want the citizens to be protected, as we haven’t been so far”.
Arias wants to influence the environmental policies of the different countries. / David Fernández / SINC
The International Odour Observatory will be ready by the end of the year. It will act as a repository of information and, as Arias explains, "it will map emitting industries, communities with problems and areas with environmental regulations, allowing open access to information for the first time as regards odour pollution."
"What we want to show," she says, "is that odour pollution is a warning sign of more serious environmental problems. It can be harmful to one’s health and contributes to greenhouse gas emissions and climate change."
For example, "one of the most pestilent odours is that of methane, one of the main gases that cause the greenhouse effect, more so than CO2, and mainly generated in landfills and livestock farms."
"With the right facilities, these gases could be collected through pipes and suction systems and then sent to a cogeneration engine to produce energy. In this way, both stenches and greenhouse gas emissions would be reduced, "she clarifies.
The researcher believes that the European initiative will help to further pressure the emitters of these smells into taking corrective measures. It will also serve "to design new strategies in response to this problem with the help of citizen participation".
In parallel to her participation in D-Noses, Rosa Arias’s upcoming plans include the launching of a start-up to be called Science for Change, which is now in the constitution phase.
"The idea behind this company is that of making use of the data on odour pollution that we are going to collect thanks to the European project with the Odour Collect tool," she points out.
The business model "will be based on the identification of populations with stench problems and with an interest in applying our new, citizen science-based methodology to solve the problem from a bottom-up perspective".
According to the chemical engineer, "the odour experts at Science for Change will be responsible, on the one hand, for creating the community of citizens involved in registering odours in real time, training them and educating them to obtain valid observations, and, on the other hand, for validating each one of those observations, verifying the origin of the odour with mathematical models and making detailed analyses of what is causing that annoyance in order to reduce it”.
"The emitting industries will have a very powerful monitoring tool that will be more affordable than traditional odour studies - since citizens' observations are free of charge – in order to improve their processes and reduce odour pollution. At the same time, it will be possible for them to check whether the corrective or good practice measures they are implementing actually work."
In addition,"it will be possible to extrapolate the model to address other environmental issues, study climate change or improve urban transport, and generate data in real time through citizen science tools.The possibilities are endless,” she concludes.