Mayor Bloomberg Reveals Sources Of Mysterious But Harmless Maple Syrup Odors

February 5, 2009

Recent Odors Emanated From Fragrance and Food Additive Factories in Bergen and Hudson Counties in New Jersey

Data From 311 Overlaid with Wind and Other Atmospheric Mapping Shows Sweet Smells Were Actually Esters Resulting From Manufacture of Products Based on Foenugreek Seeds

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg today announced that a working group comprised of New York City agencies, environmental officials from New Jersey, and the New York City Mayor’s office has determined for the first time the source of mysterious, sweet-smelling odors that have periodically been present in New York City since October 2005. Ongoing chemical analyses had shown that the unknown substance was not harmful, but it was not until one week ago today, when the City fully launched a new strategy and response protocol that included mapping the time and location of 311 odor complaints, overlaying wind and atmospheric conditions, and expediting field air sampling while New Yorkers were smelling the odor, that the smell could be identified and traced conclusively. With the cooperation of personnel from the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, City officials have identified a facility in Hudson County that has processed foenugreek seeds to produce flavors and fragrances that resulted in esters being formed in the air on dates when 311 has received a high number of sweet-smelling odor complaints in the City.

"Given the evidence, I think it’s safe to say that the Great Maple Syrup Mystery has finally been solved," said Mayor Bloomberg. "I want to thank the City’s environmental protection and emergency workers, as well as their colleagues in the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, for their diligence in finding the source of the smell, which was a lot like finding a needle in a haystack. Air samples taken by DEP have confirmed that the odor in New York City was an ester associated with foenugreek seed processing. The Health Department confirmed that the odor does not pose a health risk, but I am pleased to know that our OEM and DEP smelling sleuths got to the bottom of this mystery."

"Thanks to good information sharing among City agencies and cooperation with our partners in New Jersey, we were able to develop detailed maps that showed a clear pattern and helped us zero in on the odor’s source," said OEM Commissioner Joseph F. Bruno. "But we couldn’t have solved the mystery without help from vigilant New Yorkers whose noses provided the data we needed to crack the case."

"We are proud of our inspectors at DEP and grateful to those New Yorkers who called 311, which helped point us to the source of the smell," said Acting DEP Commissioner Steven W. Lawitts. "We also would like to thank OEM, whose geographic information systems unit played a vital role in this effort."

An ester is a chemical compound created by the reaction between an alcohol and an acid, which can be formed from byproducts of the manufacture of food additives and fragrances. Esters are not harmful if inhaled.

For more than three years, on days in which there were significant calls to the City’s 311 system reporting a sweet or maple syrup smell, the City’s Department of Environmental Protection attempted to collect air samples from the areas where the most 311 calls originated.

 After the January 5, 2009 maple syrup event, representatives from the New York City Mayor’s office, the City’s Department of Environmental Protection, the City’s Office of Emergency Management, and the City’s Department of Health and Mental Hygiene - acting under the direction of the City’s Deputy Mayor for Operations Edward Skyler - drafted a new protocol designed to expedite notifications from 311 to the Office of Emergency Management and Department of Environmental Protection. Additionally, the protocol incorporated measures that allowed for a more effective and efficient deployment of inspectors with portable sampling devices.

The working group also analyzed all previous events, mapping 311 complaints and overlaying historic information about winds and atmospheric conditions.

When the next maple syrup event occurred one week ago today, on January 29, 2009, the new response protocol was activated and Department of Environmental Protection air inspectors captured four air samples. (The Department now plans to install four permanent air monitors in City-owned facilities within the areas affected by past events.)

Crunching the numbers, the working group found that the highest concentration of complaints was often in the Upper West Side and Morningside Heights sections of Manhattan. They also discovered that incidents tended to occur on days when wind speed was moderate - fast enough to move odors across the region, but slow enough that they were not quickly dispersed. And the wind on these days generally moved from west to east, so that the wind in northern Manhattan tended to blow from Hudson and Bergen counties in New Jersey.

The review of wind and atmospheric conditions identified industrial facilities in the Bergen and Hudson counties of New Jersey as the probable source. Those facilities are involved in the production of food additives and fragrances. These companies routinely process odor-producing products such as foenugreek seeds, but the odor is only present in New York City when certain wind and humidity conditions are present.

One of these facilities, operated by the company Frutarom, was processing foenugreek seeds to produce food additives one week ago on the evening of January 29, when multiple odor complaints were recorded.

Neither Frutarom nor any of the other processors appear to be violating any rules or laws. New York City, working closely with the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection, is still investigating other possible processors that could have contributed to other maple syrup events.

Stu Loeser / Jason Post

(212) 788-2958
Chris Gilbride (OEM)

(718) 422-4888
Michael Saucier (DEP)

(718) 595-6600