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Why Do We Like the Smell of Gasoline?

Inhaling gasoline is not good for our bodies, so why is the smell so intoxicating? Greatist checks out the science behind the noxious fumes.
Why Do We Like the Smell of Gasoline?
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Though the legal age to pump gas in Connecticut is 16, filling my Mom’s Ford Explorer was my second favorite activity growing up (after coloring). I was extra excited when I could fill up my grandpa’s dual tank pick-up. There's no hiding it... I like the smell of gas. In fact, a lot of people enjoy the potentially noxious aroma, but why does the stink from the local station smell so pleasant to some of us and so nasty to others? In short, we may like certain odors because we associate them with a happy time (and likewise dislike smells because they remind us of a negative event) Theoretical accounts of Gulf War Syndrome: from environmental toxins to pyschoneuroimmunology and neurodegeneration. Ferguson, E., Cassaday, H.J. School of Psychology, University of Nottingham, Nottingham, UK. Journal of Behavioural Neurology. 2001-2002;13(3-4):133-47.. Deep nose breathing into a vat of gas is seriously dangerous, but can also induce euphoric feelings because of what the vapors do to the body. Why do we like the smell of gasoline and how dangerous is it for us? Greatist finds out.

Why It Matters — Dame Mas Gasolina

First off, we need to break down what gas is (and why it emits that sometimes tantalizing smell). Petroleum is made up of benzene and other hydrocarbons (organic compounds that are also found in things like cleaning solutions, paint, and some glues) Glue Sniffing deaths in Singapore — volatile aromatic hydrocarbons in post-mortem blood by headspace gas chromatography. Chao, T.C., Lo, D.S., Koh, J., et al. Institute of Science and Forensic Medicine, Singapore. Medicine, Science, and the Law. 1993 Jul;33(3):253-60.. Intentionally smelling the stuff can be dangerous. Deliberately taking a hefty whiff of gasoline works like an anesthetic to suppress nervous-system function and can bring on a state of euphoria (a similar state intoxication to heavy alcohol consumption). But sniffing (directly inhaling vapors), huffing (breathing through a gas-soaked rag), or bagging (inhaling vapors from a bag) is considered inhalant abuse and should be avoided at all costs Inhalant abuse. L., Baydala, Canadian Paediatric Society, First Nations, Inuit and Metis Health committee. Paediatric Child Health, 2010 Sept; 15(7):443-448.. Benzene exposure is also associated with the development of some blood cancers Benzene and the dose-related incidence of hematologic neoplasms in China. Chinese Academy of Preventive Medicine — National Cancer Institute Benzene Study Group. Hayes, R.B., Yin, S.N., Dosemeci, M., et al. Division of Cancer Epidemiology and Genetics, National Cancer Institute, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, MD. Journal of National Cancer Institute, 1997 Jul 16;89(14):1065-71..

It doesn’t take too long to become intoxicated from a couple big whiffs of gasoline. Feeling doped up from gasoline can take just a few minutes (when directly inhaled, like sticking your nose right into one of those red portable gas tanks).

Making Scents Of It All — The Answer/Debate

But some of us may dig gas for reasons beyond feeling kind of drunk. The smell of gasoline can make some people nostalgic for their childhood, says Dr. Alan Hirsch, a neurologist and psychiatrist with an expertise in smell and taste. Gas may jog the memory of summers spent at the lake where powerboats ran rampant, or of summertime in general. We’re actually wired such that smells trigger memories. In fact, the olfactory lobe (which is in charge of smell) is part of the limbic system (which controls emotions) Wired for behaviors: from development to function of innate limbic system circuitry. Sokolowski, K., Corbin, J.G., Children’s National Medical Center, Center for Neuroscience Research, Children’s Research Institute, Washington, DC. Frontiers in Molecular Neuroscience, 2012; 5:55..

Don’t worry, there’s no need to hold our breaths at the pump. Filling up the car’s tank every once in a while doesn’t require a HAZMAT suit. Even though people who pump gas for a living show an elevated level of benzene in their blood, subjects of the general population had significantly lower levels Mortality of filling station attendants. Lagorio, S., Forastiere, F., Iavarone, I. National Health Institute, Rome, Italy. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment, and Health. 1994 Oct;20(5):331-8. Environmental exposure and blood levels of benzene in gas station attendants. Comparison with the general population. Brugnone, F., Perbellini, L., Romeo, L., et al. Instituto di Medicina del Lavoro, Universita degli Studi di Verona. La Medicina del Lavoro, 1997 Mar-Apr;88(2):131-47..

Though humans are conditioned to avoid noxious smells for survival purposes, gas is generally emitted in pretty low concentrations. The moral here: Intentionally inhaling gas is bad for the body, euphoric feeling or not. Even if we don’t like the contact high, some people may enjoy the smell of gasoline purely for the happy memories it conjures up.

Did you ever wonder why people like the smell of gasoline? What’s your take? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

[Note: If it wasn’t entirely, absolutely, 100 percent clear: Intentionally inhaling gas is a bad thing to do and should be avoided.]

Picture by alandberning

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