Self-reported illness from chemical odors in young adults without clinical syndromes or occupational exposures

Iris R. Bell, Gary E. Schwartz, Julie M. Peterson, Diane Amend

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

133 Scopus citations


The present survey of young adult college students investigated the prevalence of self-reported illness from the smell of the five following common environmental chemicals (cacosmia): (1) pesticide, (2) automobile exhaust, (3) paint, (4) new carpet, and (5) perfume. Sixty-six percent of 643 students reported feeling ill from one or more of the five chemicals; 15% identified the smell of at least four chemicals as making them ill. Ratings of illness from pesticide correlated weakly but significantly with ratings for the largest number of individual symptoms (9 of 11); daytime tiredness and daytime grogginess both correlated at high levels of significance with illness ratings (on a 5-point scale) for four of the five chemicals. The most cacosmic group (CS) included significantly more women (79%) than the noncacosmic group (NS) (49%); women overall were more cacosmic than men (p <.001), even with the significant covariate of depression. Ratings of cacosmia correlated only weakly with scores for depression (r = 0.16), anxiety (r = 0.08), and trait shyness (r = 0.18) in the total sample. On stepwise multiple regression with cacosmia score as the dependent measure, shyness accounted for 5.8% of the variance, while depression, anxiety, sense of mastery, and repression did not enter the equation. Histories of physician-diagnosed hay fever, but not asthma, were more frequent in the CS (16%) than in the NS group (5%). Without the confounds of chronic illness or specific treatment programs, these data are similar to patterns described clinically for a subset of patients with multiple chemical sensitivities (MCS), including previous data on increased nasal resistance in MCS. The findings also suggest a limited relationship between degree of self-reported cacosmia and trait shyness, possibly on the basis of limbic hyper-reactivity. Psychological variables did not otherwise account for any of the variance in self-rated illness from chemical odors in this nonclinical sample.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)6-13
Number of pages8
JournalArchives of Environmental Health
Issue number1
StatePublished - 1993

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Environmental Chemistry
  • Environmental Science(all)
  • Public Health, Environmental and Occupational Health
  • Health, Toxicology and Mutagenesis


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