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Sniffing out odour pollution

OMNISCIENTIS is one of several EU-funded projects that enrols European citizens to help gather data. Image Credit: Shutterstock/ponsulak.
OMNISCIENTIS is one of several EU-funded projects that enrols European citizens to help gather data. Image Credit: Shutterstock/ponsulak.

Sharp-nosed citizen ‘watchmen’ are helping scientists monitor odours from industrial sites and the resulting data is being used to help fight smell pollution.

It’s one of a number of initiatives that use the power of the crowd by asking European citizens to submit data that can then be used for scientific research.

The EU-funded OMNISCIENTIS project was set up to help industrial sites and local authorities monitor and control odour nuisance in their areas. Researchers used data from electronic monitors and local citizens to build a comprehensive real-time picture of smells in a test site around the Burgo Ardennes paper mill in Virton, Belgium.

A key part of the process was to use live data submitted regularly by local people, known to the project as watchmen. After undergoing a smell test to measure the sensitivity of their noses, the watchmen were given a smartphone and asked to analyse the smells in their vicinity twice a day for three days of the week.

‘If it is very intense or citizens are very affected by it, we automatically send an alert to the industrial site.’

Yannick Arnaud, Spacebel, Belgium

They recorded the type of odour, its intensity on a scale from one to five, whether it was causing a nuisance, the weather conditions and their own state of health.

‘They had a free text box where they said anything related to the wind and their health condition: if they are ill, had a cold, or any other parameters that could affect their observations,’ said Yannick Arnaud, an engineer at Spacebel, which coordinated the project.

This data was then gathered centrally and combined with readings from ‘electronic noses’, in-situ sensors that were placed around the industrial site to monitor chemicals in the air.

Odour alerts

The real-time feedback helps to quickly identify problematic odours. ‘If it is very intense or citizens are very affected by it, we automatically send an alert to the industrial site,’ said Mr Arnaud.

In the longer term, patterns identified in the data can help industries identify which specific activities cause odour pollution and develop ways of mitigating the effect of these activities on their neighbours.

Although the OMNISCIENTIS project finished in September, Burgo Ardennes is now funding a six-month extension of the service.

Eventually, Mr Arnaud hopes that the technology will be rolled out to industrial sites across Europe. However he says that one barrier to commercial uptake is the fact that legislation on odour monitoring is not yet harmonised at the European level.

OMNISCIENTIS is one of five EU-funded projects that will be demonstrating how they are enrolling European citizens to help gather data at the Citizens’ Observatory event in Brussels on 4 December. So-called citizen observatories are being set up across Europe to monitor environmental phenomena such as floods and set up early warning systems for evacuation.

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