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When water seems 'off'

Parosmia can affect the smell and taste of water

It’s not uncommon for water to be a parosmia trigger. Dr Duika Burges Watson of the Altered Eating Network shares her insight and some ideas of how to deal with this.

Parosmia (distorted smell) can affect the way that food smells and tastes, and there are some great tips on how to compensate for this – but what can you do when even water smells disgusting?

In the AbScent webinar on 15 September, I touched upon techniques and ways to help if you’re experiencing this unpleasant symptom of parosmia. 

Chrissi Kelly shared what it was like for her when experiencing a change in the taste of water, “I never found it disgusting, but I did find that I was suddenly sensitive to certain ‘notes’ in tap water.”

For a lot of people, this sensitivity can be overwhelming – and not just when drinking water. Some people find that they can smell unpleasant odours that cause disgust when using water in other ways – for example when washing hands or taking a shower. When water is heated, volatile odours in the water will be released much more readily, and will be easier to detect by smell.

It's not one chemical

Many different chemicals are routinely in water that can give off odours and not all are monitored in domestic water supplies because they are not health concerns.  Often such odours are considered 'aesthetic' and  depend a lot on consumer's preferences - research has shown that people become very accustomed to particular flavours of water and generally only complain that the water smells 'off' if something changes. Even without parosmia, it can be really difficult to notice and describe the odour of water - but since the 1970s there have been lots of attempts to do so, and to link consumers' descriptions to particular chemical components. There exist, around the world, scientists who have categorized the flavour of water. For a public water supply, the most common flavour in water is due to the chlorine residual, which acts as the preservative of many public drinking waters.

So what are people describing?

On the Facebook groups, we've seen the following words used to describe the 'smell' of  water: 'chemical smell like chlorine and fluoride', 'bleach', 'swimming pool', 'sweet sickly chemical smell', 'natural gas', 'musty', 'dirty dish rag', 'like the seaside', 'fishy' or as having a 'sweet taste'. 

People with a 'normal' sense of smell can pick up these odours too, and as with parosmia, some are more sensitive to such odours than others. People often suggest a smell of chlorine, bleach, or swimming pool because they know it's sometimes added (though fluoride does not have an odour).  The 'bleachy' smell may be more prominent seasonally as in some places the chlorine level is increased  when the weather warms up. A house that is being heated will warm the water in the pipes, encouraging the release of dissolved oxygen and chlorine when the tap if opened- so cooling water down is one way to reduce that. Indeed warmer water - like when having a shower, will release stronger odours too (cold shower?). Musty flavours in water are often related to algae, and fishy smells may mean there is a drain that needs cleaning or a rag that needs throwing away ... but this is all a bit guesswork because it so much depends on where you live,  the water quality in that location, and your unique sensitivities and preferences. Myself, Jane Parker from Reading University and others are currently surveying water providers in the UK, USA and Canada to see if we can better understand what those triggers are. 

There has been some really interesting recent work by US researchers on how to 'name' the odours in water and if this is too academic, one of the authors of the paper wrote an excellent detective like novel about his journey through the sensory world of water - Earthy, With a Hint of Cucumber. Both reads are convincing,  and both point to the fact that there may not be 'one' solution for everyone.

Some things to try

Filter tap water 

Many people find relief from this symptom by filtering and cooling their tap water. But different types of filters do different things and few are designed to filter out everything because there are many useful minerals in water. Many filters are designed to reduce the chlorine smell; they have a carbon filter, for example.  Baristas, for example, place a great deal of emphasis on water quality because of what is in, not out, of the water - water components enhance a good flavour profiles to a cup of coffee. So if you buy a filter and it doesn't work, it may be worth investigating what that filter was designed to remove and try something different. 

Sometimes leaving water to ‘sit’ at room temperature in a container such as a jug for a while can also reduce some of these odours, such as chlorine. But if you leave that water sit too long in the open, or you let it stand in the hot sun, you can pick up odours from mold, the room’s environment, or the jug itself.

Filters aren’t just for your drinking water either; you can get them to attach to your shower or taps if you find the smell itself overpowering. You can even get whole filtration systems for your house, although these are considerably more expensive!

Bottled water

Bottled water may help some people, as it may not contain the particular compound that you’re sensitive to. It could be worth trying different types of bottled water to find the right one for you, as they have different chemical odours in them too. Plastic bottles can contribute plastic-like odours.

Nose clip

The nose clip - it gets talked about a lot when parosmia is really unbearable. Showering with a nose clip may help.

Experiment

As with a lot of things with changes to your sense of smell, everyone is different, water supplies are different,  and everyone will be affected in different ways. The best way to overcome changes and challenges is to experiment and see what works for you. In the case of water, working to understand what aspect of it causes disgust, and finding an alternative - can bring relief. Compare the smell of your water from your tap, first the cold water and then the hot (hot water pipes and heaters can develop their own problems). Then compare that experience to a bottle of distilled water such as you would buy to use in your clothes pressing iron. See if you detect different odours; the distilled water could have a smell of the plastic container. Then compare this to a favorite bottled water brand that you might drink. If you detect unpleasant odours in all these waters, it may be difficult to offset your experience. If the distilled water and bottled water smell refreshing and clean, then maybe a filter on your tap to remove the tap water’s odours, such as from chlorine, would bring relief. 

This article was written by Dr Duika Burges Watson, founder of the Altered Eating Research Network, with expert input from Gary Burlingame, director of Philadelphia Water's Bureau of Laboratory Services, USA.

May 18, 2021