When Jude Whelley walks her dog in her front yard in Harrison Township, she often detects a syrupy-sweet smell, particularly on moist, foggy nights. Jude has lived in this neighborhood since 1985, and while the generally accepted wisdom is that the smell comes from the nearby Cargill factory, for years she's wondered "does [the smell] depend on what they’re making? Or does it depend on the weather? Is it dangerous, or is it just unpleasantly sweet?"
We investigated Jude's questions for this edition of WYSO's new series, WYSO Curious.
Answering Jude's questions about the smell involved consulting a number of sources, from the managers of the suspected source to air pollution experts. The investigation also inspired new questions about the effects of smells on property values and home sales in Dayton, historically and today.
To begin with, Jude's hunch that the sweet aroma comes from the Cargill plant is spot-on. Their factory is located within a five-minute drive from her neighborhood. The factory produces two categories of products: animal feed and food sweeteners. Cargill is one of the leading suppliers of corn syrup, which goes into everything from ketchup to sodas to candy.
But the reason the smell is more apparent at certain days and times has little to with the production schedules, according to facilities manager Greg Holler, who says their process "is very stable and quite consistent."
Instead, atmospheric conditions play a large part in how a smell is experienced. Sunshine dilutes smells in the air, so the best times to hunt for smells are dawn and dusk. Humidity also contributes to a stronger smell.
As to the question of whether the smell is dangerous, the short answer is: no. Officials with the Regional Air Pollution Control Agency (RAPCA) say the smell isn't known to pose any health hazards and that Cargill is in compliance with pollution standards.
Whether it's dangerous or not, though, multiple sources said a potent smell can have other impacts on a community. Brian Inderrieden with Dayton's planning department says historically, affluent neighborhoods developed away from the sights and odors of industry despite the fact that industrial development was considered a sign of prosperity. Tighter regulation has improved the air quality over the years and he says today, smell rarely plays a role in real estate and business decisions in the region.
The Cargill smell is not overwhelmingly unpleasant, but Dayton realtor Steve Seboldt says he's aware he sells homes in the corn syrup smell zone.
"The old joke about when you have an open house, have the coffee on...to some degree, it's true," he said. "We all know that." Still, he doesn't believe the fairly mild Cargill smell affects his bottom line, and says most people are satisfied with an explanation of the source of the smell and the assurance that it doesn't pose risks.
WYSO Curious is WYSO's series where listeners ask questions for WYSO reporters to answer. Are you curious about the Miami Valley, its history, people or economy? Is there a place, a person or a story that mystifies or intrigues you? Do you like to ask questions? Go to the page on our site to ask a question, and vote on the next question we'll answer.