Some people sense a sweet, euphoric odor when pumping gas into their car. Why is that? And is it hazardous?
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Hey there BrainStuff gang! I’m Cristen… and have you ever been to the gas station before, filling up your jalopy, when suddenly your nostril hairs (sniff sniff) twinge with an aromatic burning sensation?
I’m talking about gasoline people! Why does it smell so freaking good?!?
Well the first answer is pretty simple actually. Gasoline (or petrol as our friends across the pond call it) contains a chemical hydrocarbon called benzene, used to boost its octane rating.
Benzene naturally has a sweet scent to it that our noses are especially sensitive to. It is so pungent, we can get a whiff of it if there’s only 1-5 parts per million in the air we breathe.
In fact, it evaporates so quickly that you’d smell benzene instantly if you just put some in a dish in the same room you’re in.
And benzene’s not just in gasoline. We use it in plastics, pesticides and detergents. It’s also in a lot of mass-produced toys. So it’s possible you’re associating the smell of gasoline with that “new toy” smell from your childhood.
But don’t let its odor get its enchanting hooks in you too far! The smell of benzene can be euphoric… but it’s also toxic if you inhale large amounts of it. It actually attacks your nervous system! Luckily its so pungent that we have plenty of warning before hazardous exposure.
That’s why it can start to make you nauseous or give you a headache after awhile. And the consequences of sniffing too much benzene and gasoline are not pretty.
But get this… there’s possibly another, less dangerous reason why we like the smell of gasoline so much. A study published in a 2009 issue of “Addiction Research & Theory” indicates that gasoline smells better to us when we’re hungry! It found that people rate the smell of gasoline as being more pleasant and intense the longer it had been since they’d last eaten.
More research is obviously required, but there seems to be a link between our degree of hunger and our odor perception of gasoline. Maybe that’s why gas stations make such a killing on selling junk food?
Stewart, J. (2013). I like the smell of gasoline. Men's Health, 28(3), 024
JACKSON, C. E., CURRIE, B. J., CAIRNEY, S., MARUFF, P. T., & SNYDER, P. J. (2009). Hunger and the perception of the scent of petrol: A potential neurobiological basis for increased risk of petrol inhalation abuse. Addiction Research & Theory, 17(5), 518-524. doi:10.1080/16066350802011656