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Perception of Odor and Nasal Pungency from Homologous Series of Volatile Organic Compounds

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We tested nasal detection thresholds for airborne chemicals in a group of anosmics (i.e., subjects lacking a functional sense of smell) and in a group of age-, gender-, and smoking-status-matched normosmics (i.e., subjects with normal olfaction). Anosmics provided odor unbiased nasal pungency (irritation) thresholds. Normosmics provided odor thresholds. Homologous series of alcohols, acetates, and ketones served as stimuli. Eye irritation thresholds were also measured for selected acetates. Most substances evoked pungency (i.e., were detected by the anosmics). All sensory thresholds decreased systematically with carbon chain length. The gap between pungency and odor grew larger with increasing carbon chain length. Pungency thresholds — but not odor thresholds — showed a uniform linear relationship of slope close to unity with saturated vapor concentration, irrespective of chemical functionality or carbon chain length. This suggests that pungency from nonreactive airborne chemicals rests heavily on a relatively unspecific physical interaction with a susceptible biophase. Of relevance to indoor environments, such an interaction opens the possibility for a high degree of sensory addition of pungency from individual components of complex mixtures resulting in noticeable irritation even when each component is at a level well below threshold.

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