HazMat Situational Awareness – Making sense of scent

Level A Training
It is not that we as hazmatters want to smell a chemical agent but that we as professionals better know what it smells like. Besides PPE problems such as suit breakthrough or poorly fitting mask another good reason to have an idea of the scents that are associated with the bad stuff is the valuable information we receive from our witnesses/victims.

Understanding witness statements can be a vital key to helping us safely solve a hazmat/WMD problem. The book says if a witness (perhaps even as a last dying breath) states that it smelled like bitter almonds we should draw a connection to Hydrogen Cyanide. What if a victim says it smelled like old boot? The book says Lewisite smells like geraniums. I had really no idea what geraniums smell like but Google images will at least give me a picture to look at.

For our own situational awareness (fancy for let’s all get home safely) we need to have an idea of the properties of the stuff that can hurt us. Having a sense of what the scents are can only help us. Below is a table of some bad substances and what they are known to smell like. Most of these may even knock you dead before the olfactory system tells the feet to run.

Cyclosarin – Peach scent
Soman – VapoRub scent
Tabun – Fruity scent
Lewisite – Geranium scent
Hydrogen Cyanide – Almond scent
Hydrogen Sulfide – Sulfur scent
Sulfur Mustard – Garlic scent
Phosgene – Mown Hay scent
Knowing the above is great except for one part. We can read scents and we can say and memorize words but it’s the smell that you need to know to save your life.


I had the opportunity to meet Rod Davis who is a retired fellow first responder (dodged bullets) who recognized that to make sense of the scents you must use your nose. Rod developed and put some cents into a system of cards which when rubbed and sniffed lets the nose experience the associated scents above without the dire consequences.

Another thing to remember and what was peculiar for me was that everyone may have a different description of each scent as they experience it. I heard germanium scent described as grandma’s garden and almonds as old boot. For my own situational awareness locker of life saving tips I took good whiffs of each card with my eyes closed and hope to have them committed to memory when I need the help. If a victim ever tells me it smelled like old boot it won’t be the first time I heard it that way and I hope to draw the connection.

I’m a fan of anything that will better train us to go home safely and Rod’s product is worth a sniff. Check out his website at www.newdisasterprep.com Here is a video about the product.

-HMN Ed. Phil Ambrose


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *


%d bloggers like this: