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Environ Health Perspect. 2016 Nov;124(11):1683-1693. Epub 2016 Jun 10.

Effects of Ambient Air Pollution Exposure on Olfaction: A Review.

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Pritzker School of Medicine, University of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois, USA.



Olfactory dysfunction affects millions of people worldwide. This sensory impairment is associated with neurodegenerative disease and significantly decreased quality of life. Exposure to airborne pollutants has been implicated in olfactory decline, likely due to the anatomic susceptibility of the olfactory nerve to the environment. Historically, studies have focused on occupational exposures, but more recent studies have considered effects from exposure to ambient air pollutants.


To examine all relevant human data evaluating a link between ambient pollution exposure and olfaction and to review supporting animal data in order to examine potential mechanisms for pollution-associated olfactory loss.


We identified and reviewed relevant articles from 1950 to 2015 using PubMed and Web of Science and focusing on human epidemiologic and pathophysiologic studies. Animal studies were included only to support pertinent data on humans. We reviewed findings from these studies evaluating a relationship between environmental pollutant exposure and olfactory function.


We identified and reviewed 17 articles, with 1 additional article added from a bibliography search, for a total of 18 human studies. There is evidence in human epidemiologic and pathologic studies that increased exposure to ambient air pollutants is associated with olfactory dysfunction. However, most studies have used proxies for pollution exposure in small samples of convenience. Human pathologic studies, with supporting animal work, have also shown that air pollution can contact the olfactory epithelium, translocate to the olfactory bulb, and migrate to the olfactory cortex. Pollutants can deposit at each location, causing direct damage and disruption of tissue morphology or inducing local inflammation and cellular stress responses.


Ambient air pollution may impact human olfactory function. Additional studies are needed to examine air pollution-related olfactory impacts on the general population using measured pollution exposures and to link pollution exposure with olfactory dysfunction and related pathology. Citation: Ajmani GS, Suh HH, Pinto JM. 2016. Effects of ambient air pollution exposure on olfaction: a review. Environ Health Perspect 124:1683-1693;

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