Listening Rec – 99% Invisible

Today I have a listening recommendation for you! 99% Invisible is a podcast about the unnoticed design elements that shape our world (mannequins, the patterns on paper cups, the sound of cities, etc.) They made an episode on perfume, and it provides an excellent crash course on the history of perfume for the last century, how perfumes get made, and the current state of the industry. 

A few bits of the episode to pique your interest: A perfumer explains how to make something smell “like the cat pissed on your weed,” we learn about the enchanting smell of ambergris, also known as whale vomit, and the host changes her mind about perfume.

Now, this episode also prompted me to dive deep into reading about a woman named Pamela Dalton. She’s interviewed briefly, and mentions that she is doing expert witness testimony in a legal case on landfill odor complaints. I love the idea of a legal case about smell! It raises such excellent questions! How do you prove that something smells bad? What are citizen’s rights, when it comes to smell? 

I’ve heard the town of Hershey, PA smells like chocolate. What does it smell like to live near a meat processing plant? What if your apartment is above a bakery, and then they leave and are replaced by a fishmonger? Can you get a rent cut? For more such imaginings, read about the case between Irwin County and the Sriracha factory.

Back to Pam. As I looked into this Pamela Dalton, I found that she has a PhD in Experimental Psychology and a Masters in Public Health. She works at the Monell Chemical Senses Center and does a lot of work related to the intersection of war and smell. Which, yes, yikes. 

She has worked for the Department of Defense on developing nonlethal smell weapons. Smell preferences are not universal, so one country’s yum might be another’s yuck. But some odors are universally repulsive to humans – feces, vomit, death. The difficulty with using smell as a weapon is that the nose mostly detects changes in smells. It’s very easy to go noseblind to a smell after about 15 minutes in it, no matter how foul. Still, bad smells can be used for dispersing crowds and keeping people away from locations. Dalton went with “rotting flesh” for her weapon development, by the way.

(Bet you didn’t know – when institutions have living evergreens on their property, they often try to prevent christmastime tree poaching by spraying their trees with stinky smells, like fox urine.) 

Dalton also uses smell to work on PTSD treatment and prevention in soldiers. The gist of this work seems to be: expose soldiers to the smells of war during training. This will decrease the intensity of the smell experience of war, and hopefully prevent these smells from becoming triggers for traumatized soldiers. 

It had never occurred to me that the military might use smell weapons. There are similar weapons for the other senses, too. Dazzlers for the eyes and also deafening noises. Listen to Kate Bush’s “Experiment IV” for a song about this.

On a lighter note: I work in a school, and last year I spent a very enjoyable lunch break listening over the walkie as the adults in the building tried to coordinate the capture of a bottle of poop scent that was being passed around the gym. 

So that’s that for my Pamela Dalton tangent. War is foul. If you listen to the podcast, let me know what you think!

Note: The first few minutes of the podcast feature a somewhat unfortunate speaking voice… Power through it. 


Associated Press. “A Foul-Smelling Solution to Seasonal Tree Poaching” NEw york Times. 2006.

Friedlander, Beau. A Brief History of Scent. Harper’s Bazaar. 2013.

Khan, Jennifer. Aroma Therapy / In The Military, It’s Known As ‘Nonlethal Weapons Development’. SFGate.

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