An ‘Industrial-Scale Glade Plug-In’ Masks Odors from L.A.’s Urban Oil Fields

Public health advocates express concern that the industrial odorizers could be harmful to human health

Kate Wheeling
OneZero
Published in
9 min readFeb 5, 2020

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The 1200-acre Inglewood Oil Field located in the Baldwin Hills area of Los Angeles, CA. Photo: Education Images/Getty Images

AA decade ago, when it was not uncommon for the breeze through Los Angeles’s University Park neighborhood to carry the scent of natural gas, the residents of the area began falling ill. They complained to Martha Dina Argüello, the executive director of the nonprofit Physicians for Social Responsibility, about nausea and nosebleeds; air that burned the eyes and throat, as if they were cooking with chilies; the smell of gas, rotten eggs, and, curiously, overripe guava. They blamed the nearby AllenCo drill site, a collection of 21 oil wells operating on land leased from the Catholic Archdiocese of L.A.

“As we worked with more communities, we kept hearing the same story,” Argüello tells OneZero. “‘It smells like green apple,’ or, ‘it smells like strawberries.’”

Argüello worried that the residents were breathing in chemical odor suppressants — fragrances used by dumps and industrial sites to mask bad smells. She had worked on fragrance issues in the past, and she knew these scents often contained phthalates and other endocrine disruptors, synthetic chemicals that mimic hormones and confuse the body. Endocrine disruptors have been linked to infertility, cancer, and birth defects.

University Park, named for its proximity to the University of Southern California and other college campuses, packs more than 25,000 people into just 1.7 square miles — one of the highest population densities in the city. Roughly half of the population is Latinx, the median annual income is less than $20,000, and the median age is just 23.

“It’s very problematic to be spraying things with a lot of phthalates around this particular population where there’s a lot of women of childbearing age and a lot of young people living there,” she says. “I really got very worried.”

None of the regulatory agencies Argüello reached out to could tell her anything about the fruity scents, and whether they were the odor suppressants she suspected. An answer would come, years later, not from regulators, but from Niki Wong, the director of policy and…

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Kate Wheeling
OneZero

freelance environmental journalist. @katewheeling