A version of this story is published in Public Lab's Community Science Forum, Issue 16.
In general, odors themselves are not regulated at the federal level in the United States. The Environmental Protection Agency does regulate air pollutants via the National Ambient Air Quality Standards, which covers six major pollutants: sulfur dioxide (the only pollutant on this list with a discernible odor), particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5), carbon monoxide, ozone, nitrogen dioxide, and lead. These regulations apply to a pollutant’s toxicity and not its smell. However, using odor identification charts, like the one included in this publication, is one way to use odor as a first step in identifying a regulated pollutant.
It is worth noting that, as of 2019, several of the committees and agencies that are charged with updating and reviewing standards for exposure and testing for toxins listed above have not met or have essentially been disbanded. So, in cases where appealing to federal regulators is unlikely to lead to resolution, it makes sense to explore options available at the state and municipal levels, with organizations that regulate health and safety for workers, nuisance regulations, and civil cases. In nearly all instances, coordinated community efforts have helped move cases and complaints forward by establishing the scope of an issue and monitoring the times and conditions when an odor issue is exacerbated. Below is a short list of some options for pursuing odor complaints in the United States (either via regulation or as a starting point for legal action).
State and municipal nuisance laws. The department handling these will vary from state to state, though most states list odor issues under the departments of health or environment. These generally can be used to address activities that prevent people from enjoyment of public and private spaces, but there are also exceptions for certain industries (such as farming) and areas zoned for industrial or mixed use. It can also fall on the a complainant to demonstrate the degree of exposure to an odor, though some states or municipalities will provide support for this once an initial complaint has been made. The State of Oregon Department of Environmental Quality provides some information about how to use a nuisance report to pursue an issue. Visit http://bit.ly/ORODOR
A helpful overview of how some organizations have pursued action through local nuisance laws can be found at the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and their Center for State, Tribal, Local, and Territorial Support. While the CDC provides information about how to conduct a preliminary investigation into an odor issue, options for pursuing regulatory or legal action vary quite a bit from state to state. Visit http://bit.ly/CDCODOR
Workplace protections. The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) may be helpful if odors are present in places where people are working, particularly with poor indoor air quality. Most of the options here will be focused on proper handling of noxious or toxic air pollutants (such as filtering or venting), especially where employee exposure is a possibility. In cases where an indoor space is also used by customers or the public, reports may be made by non-employees, though in this case (as with the EPA’s regulations), the focus is on harmful exposure to toxins and not to the smell itself. Visit http://bit.ly/NIOSHODOR
Local departments of environmental conservation/protection. In New York State, the town of Perinton is working with the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to provide residents with tools to report issues coming from a privately owned landfill via a form on the town’s website. Visit http://bit.ly/DECODOR
Agricultural and farming waste. In cases where the source of an odor is agricultural, nine states (Alabama, Idaho, Missouri, Nebraska, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Oregon, Pennsylvania, and Texas) have specific regulations about odor stemming from CAFOs (concentrated animal feeding operations). Additionally, bacteria seepage or spread as a result of animal waste handling may be considered a regulated toxin in some states, especially E. coli, which is responsible for the odors present in human and animal waste. Visit http://bit.ly/FARMODOR