Imagine never smelling chocolate chip cookies fresh out of the oven, flowers in the spring or, in a potentially dangerous situation, natural gas.
During last week’s TEDxUofM conference, Michelle Krell Kydd, a flavor and fragrance expert, discussed congenital anosmia, a little-known disorder.
Engineering senior Eric Riedel and Art & Design freshman Sarah Jomaa both have congenital anosmia — which means they have not had a sense of smell since they were born.
“It hasn’t affected me too much,” Riedel said. “As I always say, it’s better than losing any of my other senses.”
Jomaa said she used to harbor concerns about her hygiene because she could not smell body odor.
“There was this time I went through this really obsessive phase of brushing my teeth, because I didn’t know when my breath smelled,” Jomaa said.
Kydd, a communications specialist at Alliance for the Arts in Research Universities, also lectures about olfaction, or the sense of smell. She spent much of her career working for companies focused on fragrance and flavor like Ciao Bella Gelato Company and the Estée Lauder Companies.
“6.2 million people can’t smell,” Kydd said in her TEDxUofM talk Friday. “And being nose blind stinks.”
She said one of the greatest dangers of being unable to smell is the inability to detect natural gas. While there are currently reliable mechanisms for carbon monoxide detection, there are none to detect natural gas. Instead, a chemical compounds called mercaptans are added to natural gas to give it a distinct smell. For those who cannot smell, however, this addition makes no difference.
“Luckily it hasn’t affected me, but natural gas leaks, most people can smell those because of the rotten egg smell in the air, but I am not able to detect those so hopefully that never affects me,” Riedel said. “It’s just another thing that I’m aware of and I have to be careful about.”
Jomaa added that she worries about her inability to detect potential fires — if something was burning, she would not be able to smell it. Another issue that both Kydd and Riedel addressed was that people with anosmia cannot smell rotting food.
“The main way it affects me day to day is with spoiled food,” Riedel said. “Sometimes I have to get my roommate to check to see if my leftovers have gone bad, because I can’t smell.”
Riedel and Jomaa each noted that a common question that people ask once it is about the condition is whether or not they can taste. Both said they think they can taste, but probably not in the same way people who can smell do.
“I think I can (taste), because I don’t know any different,” Riedel said. “I have foods that I like, I have foods that I don’t like, just like everyone else. So I think I have the ability to taste, but I’m assuming that it’s obviously somewhat different from someone who can smell. Like I’ve said, I’ve never known any otherwise.”
Jomaa said Kydd helped her to understand the difference between how people with anosmia and those without taste.
“Michelle Kydd said that people with anosmia can taste sweet and sour and bitter and all of that kind of stuff,” Jomaa said. “But they can’t get the combination that the smell gives them, which is flavor. She compares it to eating food while having a cold.”
Both said they wished that congenital anosmia was a better-known condition, and that people who had it knew there were more people affected by it as well.
“A blind person, or a deaf person, you can usually tell when you interact with them that they have this,” Riedel said. “But a lot of my friends don’t even know that I don’t have a sense of smell.”
Correction appended: A previous version of this article misstated the title of the event; it is TedxUofM.