Is This Normal?: “I Love the Smell of Gasoline”
In this series, we dig into our strange phobias, fixations, and neuroses, and ask ourselves — Is This Normal?
Imagine being on a road trip, needing to make a pit stop on the side of the highway, surrounded by lush greenery, the sound of cars whizzing by in the background, the prospect of unlimited gas station snacks, and a myriad smells — dust, damp earth and … gasoline. Mmmm.
The pungent chemical odor has a way of creeping in and settling down into one’s olfactory senses, almost compelling one to take a deep breath. So what if it’s the smell of inflammable, noxious chemicals; all that matters is it’s delicious. I, for one, am a fan. But is this normal?
Gasoline contains almost 150 chemicals, including benzene, which has a sweet smell, according to the U.S. Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry (ATSDR). The smell of benzene is so potent that a person can begin to whiff it at 0.25 parts of gasoline per million parts of air (ppm), the ATSDR states. In the 1800s, benzene was even used to add a sweet smell to aftershaves and douches, until scientists found it’s a harmful, cancer-causing chemical.
Some people, including yours truly, have an affinity for the sweet smell of benzene. One theory is benzene makes some people nostalgic for their childhood — “gas may jog the memory of summers spent at the lake where powerboats ran rampant, or of summertime in general,” neurologist Dr. Alan Hirsch told Greatist. Our sense of smell has a particularly unique connection to memory. All the other senses pass through the thalamus in the brain — “a switchboard of sorts,” Carl Engelking describes for Discovery Magazine — that helps make sense of sensations. But the olfactory sense has direct connections to the amygdala and hippocampus, associated with emotions and memory respectively. If one’s childhood was replete with happy summer road trips, then benzene is one’s memory drug.
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Or, some people might just like to get high. According to the U.S. National Institute of Drug Abuse (NDA), gasoline is an inhalant, containing “psychoactive properties.” In the same category as other household products such as cleaning fluids, glues, and markers, gasoline contains hydrocarbons that suppress the central nervous system, activating the mesolimbic or ‘reward’ pathway, which releases a quick, small shot of dopamine to the brain. This causes a feeling of relaxation and euphoria, according to the NDA. Inhaling gasoline can also make one feel light-headed, feel less self-conscious, or experience mild hallucinations, the NDA states.
Since gasoline offers a short-term high, it’s possible to get addicted to the feeling and do it over and over again. But, the ATSDR states, high concentrations can irritate the lungs, cause permanent damage to the nervous system, may cause an inability to breathe, or induce a coma. Continuously inhaling gasoline fumes, or inhaling them in large amounts, can lead to slurred or distorted speech, lack of control of body movement, and dizziness, the NDA adds.
So, a note to self: However good it might feel to travel down memory lane or get high for a few seconds, do not make sniffing gasoline a habit. Yes, it’s completely normal — just ask Lizzo or Kim Kardashian — but is it safe? Sadly, no.