The nose knows: To be a city odor inspector, you have to have the right sense of smell

All noses are not created equal. Some are too sensitive, others not sensitive enough. And to be a city odor inspector, your nose can be neither. While reporting this week's cover story, "Raising a Stink," which tells the tale of a RiNo factory owner who's suing his neighbors for harassment after they complained that his business stunk, we spoke with the state's chief odor-inspector certifier about the tools of the trade. (Spoiler: They include a nose gun.)

Adam Wozniak is the inventory and support supervisor for the Air Pollution Control Division of the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. Part of his job is to certify odor inspectors who work for cities, counties and the state. A key part of the job is having the right nose, Wozniak says.

"A small percentage of people don't have a very good sense of smell, so it doesn't make a whole lot of sense to have them go out and do an (odor) reading," he explains. "On the other side, there's people who are physiologically like bloodhounds; they smell everything. So it also doesn't make sense for those people to do it." The best inspectors, Wozniak says, are people who have a perfectly average sense of smell.

And just how do you measure such a thing? Through a series of sniff tests, Wozniak says. The would-be inspectors are given several pairs of bottles to smell. One bottle contains odorless distilled water. The other, he notes, "has some level of a chemical in there. Their job is to smell both of the bottles and mark on a sheet of paper which one, if any, smells to them. ... If they've got the ability to take in scents and their nose is in the middle range, they'll be able to smell the bottle and say, 'Yes, there is a smell.'"

The recruits (and veterans who must be re-certified every year) are also tested on how well they use the nose gun. Officially called a Nasal Ranger, the thing looks like a bullhorn for your nose. But Wozniak insists that it's the latest in odor-measuring technology. (Some inspectors still use scentometers, which work just like Nasal Rangers but are less fancy.)

The Nasal Ranger quantifies the strength of a smell by mixing stinky air with clean air that's been purified by built-in charcoal filters. If an inspector can still smell something funky after the allegedly smelly air has been diluted with a certain level of filtered air, then the odor exceeds the local smell threshold -- which may result in a fine.

If you're thinking about trying out for the odor-inspector team, Wozniak has this advice: Don't smoke right before taking the test; all you'll smell is stale cigarettes. Don't eat a garlicky lunch; all you'll smell is your breath. And don't douse yourself with Obsession by Calvin Klein; while it may attract sexy tigers, it'll throw off your nose.

For more on how the Nasal Ranger works and to see it in action, check out this clip from the History Channel's Modern Marvels:

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Melanie Asmar is a staff writer for Westword. She joined the paper in 2009 and has won awards for her stories about education, immigration and epic legal battles. Got a tip? She'd love to hear it.
Contact: Melanie Asmar