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Observing Life: In praise of common scents, The National, 14.09.2010

I came back from our summer holiday this year feeling as though I was losing my senses. Literally. Not just children-pecking-your-head, villa-tumbling-down-around-yourears kind of losing it; one of my five senses has all but gone. I can hardly smell.

The medical term for this is hyposmia, in my case most probably caused by a lackadaisical approach to treating a bad case of sinusitis a few weeks ago. A quick search on Wikipedia shows that hyposmia is a lesser version of anosmia, which is a total loss, or absence, of the sense of smell. And it appears I am in good, if eclectic, company: Michael Hutchence, Stevie Wonder, Harry Redknapp and William Wordsworth all have or had anosmia.

Reece Davies, another sufferer in New Zealand, is the lead singer in a heavy metal band catchily called Anosmia. They have yet to release an album. When they do, let’s hope it’s not a real stinker.

On the other hand there are hidden dangers to this affliction. I hadn’t realised until now how important our sense of smell is as a first line of self-defence. Take the the morning I started to make porridge for my children only to have them wince at the slightly rancid milk I was using. Or not being able to tell that the Smiley Faces are about done by the burning smell emanating from the grill.

My previous St Bernard-like ability to smell the smallest gas leak – gone.

For some poor souls, estimated at up to five million people in the US alone, this affliction is permanent and their inability to sniff out potential dangers has led some to consider training a “service dog” to alert sufferers to lifethreatening odours.

Self-help sheets advise anosmics to fit smoke alarms, have gas appliances regularly serviced, keep an eye on ‘“use by” dates on food and pay extra attention to personal hygiene.

Now, I don’t want to paint a completely gloomy picture of this. There are some advantages to not being able to smell. On a recent trip to Khalifa City, the children recoiled as they got out of the car and caught the stench of manure blowing from someone’s garden. I couldn’t smell a thing.

As I ushered the children into their friend’s house, their eyes watering, I started to think of all the jobs within which the olfactorally-challenged might thrive: rubbish collecting, muck-spreading, butcher, fishmonger – the list goes on.

My doctor says that in all likelihood my hyposmia is temporary and I should be firing on all olfactory receptors before long. In the meantime, spare a thought for the parosmic among us to whom perfectly anodyne things smell foul. Or the phantosmic, who smell things that are not there.

My sense of smell does kick in occasionally. That initial squirt of perfume, or coffee brewing. But it goes to show that often, you don’t realise how important something is until it’s gone. So wake up, smell the coffee and look after your nose.

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