NYTimes: Objected-to smells are a matter of etiquette, not public health

In today’s NYT, their etiquette columnist (kind of like “Dear Abby” for those of us not living in 1950) addressed a question about smells coming through the walls of a multi-unit residence and causing some identifiable health problems for the questioner.  The answer — which seems reasonable to interpret as the official word of the paper — was that the writer who complained should start by getting a contractor to try to fix the air leaks and if that does not work to ask very that the offending smell-producing neighbor stop producing the smell, but do so extremely nicely since the neighbor has absolutely no obligation to change his/her behavior.

The offending and health-affecting smell in this case was some kind of perfume smell from an air freshener.  What I wonder is if this newspaper has previously reported on efforts to prohibit people from smoking in multi-unit residential buildings — because of the drifting bits of smoke and their smell and purely speculative health effects — and either editorialized in favor of such action or offered no hint that there was anything extreme about the efforts.

Anyone recall?

– Carl V. Phillips

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  • rotrhenbj  On December 12, 2010 at 3:52 pm

    Try this one Paul-


  • benpal  On December 12, 2010 at 3:56 pm

    I wonder where these people live? In cardboard houses? In ancient western-style log houses? In multi-unit tents?
    There is no way that odors can leak through solid walls, be transported in electric cables or sneak through sanitary installations.
    Otherwise neighbors would mutually offend each other with smells emanating from restrooms and kitchens.

  • benpal  On December 12, 2010 at 4:14 pm

    I just followed the link provided by rotrhenbj.
    Through air ducts? Well, ventilation systems work by extraction. The air extracted from an individual unit is nor blown into the neighbor units nor is it circulating through the rooms in the same unit but it is blown outside of the house. Otherwise any airborne pathogens and restroom odors would be generously spread throughout the individual’s and the neighbor’s unit. As the air extracted is generally humid, the condensation in the ducts provides an ideal hotbed for the culture of pathogens. Who would want to spread these cultures from one unit to the next?

  • Carl V Phillips  On December 13, 2010 at 1:27 pm

    Thanks for the comments. (Btw, it was I who wrote this one, not Paul. Maybe we need to change our format to make sure the byline is more prominent.)

    That “Well” column is just what I was looking for. It is somewhat balanced, but not once does she suggest that at some point you just have to either live with some externalities from your neighbors or persuade them to stop — there was no hesitation to buy into the anti-smoker premise that it is perfectly legal and ethical to impose this to protect neighbors. And the claimed risk from ETS does not present a valid distinction. Indeed the health issues cut the other way in this comparison: The case in the etiquette column had definite health effects while any risk from trace amounts of drifting smoke is hypothetical, in general, and likely is as idiosyncratic as the questioner’s sensitivity to perfumes.

    As for detectable traces drifting through, there is no doubt this happens. Lots of people complain about it, and I tend to believe them. They might worry too much about the health effects, but there is no doubt they can smell it. Also, it is quite frequently that you can smell smoke in a nonsmoking hotel room, usually in the bathroom if the fan is not blowing out — even if 99% of the air flow is in one direction, it is still possible to *detect* (which is not to say suffer health effects from) smoke.

    In general I do not object to rules that protect people from externalities — people should have complete liberty over themselves, but as soon as there are externalities there needs to be a balance, and frankly I think it favors freedom over protecting the neighbors in a lot of cases. Also, there are interesting unintended consequences: In one townhouse community I experienced smoke coming in the window from a neighbor who dutifully did her smoking on the patio, much more (in the summer anyway) than would have come through the wall.

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