Richard Duffee has stuck his nose in some pretty smelly places.
He has been to Samoan fish canneries where the stench made his clothes reek, an Iowa hog-processing plant where piles of rotting carcasses made his skin smell for days, and a chemical plant in Connecticut where undiluted chemicals made tears stream from his eyes.
Duffee, you might say, has a nose for business.
He has sniffed out foul odors for General Motors Corp., Johnson & Johnson, Anheuser-Busch Cos. Inc., RJR Nabisco Inc., Proctor & Gamble Co. and dozens of cities, always letting his nose do the work.
"I have a good nose," said Duffee. "I'm probably in the 95th percentile in terms of noses."
Duffee, 61, owns Odor Science and Engineering Inc., a consulting firm that traces foul odors to their source and designs ways to control them.
Duffee claims that there isn't a smell that has stumped him in more than 30 years in the smelling business. He has sniffed everything from pineapple to penguin dung, all with the quiet confidence of someone with a nose that knows.
"It's generally pretty easy for me to smell something once or twice and know what it is," he said. "I've found that I am able to smell things that other people can't."
Duffee discovered the power of his nose in college, when he aced his organic chemistry course partly because he was able to identify compounds by simply sniffing them. Soon, other students in the class were asking Duffee to use his nose to help their grades.
After earning degrees in chemistry and meteorology at Boston College and Penn State University, Duffee refined his skills while working for an Ohio research laboratory. He later became chief scientist for TRC-Environmental Consultants Inc. of Hartford before starting Odor Science in 1987.
Today the company has annual revenues of $1.5 million and 16 employees who travel nationwide sniffing out odor problems, largely for corporations and municipalities, but occasionally for residential customers. The company also has done some business overseas, including work at a trash-to-energy plant in Wuppertal, Germany, and at Penn Chemical, in County Cork, Ireland.
Odor Science charges anywhere from $55 to $175 an hour, depending on which staff member is used. Duffee gets the top rate.
The most important qualification for prospective employees is not necessarily where they went to college or where they have worked before, but how good they are at sniffing.
Duffee treats each new case like a mystery.
He goes out on jobs with only his nose and his "scentometer," a small filtering instrument that allows him to smell odors at different dilution levels.
His work often requires all-night stakeouts, where he canvasses the neighborhood surrounding a paper mill or factory and sometimes sniffs his way into people's yards to follow an odor plume.
Once, while sitting in his car inhaling the smells in a residential neighborhood near a GM plant in Van Nuys, Duffee was confronted by a man with a shotgun.
"He said, 'What are you doing here?' and I told him I was doing a nuclear radiation study," said Duffee. "Once he heard that, he ran back to his house."
Another time he helped control a pesky odor problem at the Deer Island sewage-treatment plant outside Winthrop, Mass., by setting up a 24-hour hotline for odor complaints and appointing neighborhood residents as on-call inspectors.
"By the end of the program, the townspeople were willing to say, 'We know there are some things you can't completely fix, but you have at least helped,' " said Sonya Nelthropp, a program manager for the Massachusetts Water Resources Authority.
Sometimes, Duffee finds the source of the problem right away. Other times, the odor is gone by the time he arrives and he must spend days and even weeks trying to figure out what the smelly culprit was.
Often, he is asked to testify as an expert witness on behalf of his clients in civil lawsuits.
Duffee, who has a long, straight nose with large nostrils, is not the most likely person to have an ultrasensitive nose.
"Certainly younger people and in particular women will just experience more of odors than men or older people," said Richard Doty, director of the University of Pennsylvania's Smell and Taste Center.
"But typically you can train people to recognize odors through repeated exposure. It's like learning the alphabet."
Duffee's reputation as a consummate sniffer has prompted some nosy nicknames. He's been called "Snuffy Duffee" and "The Nosiest Man in America."
An oversized gold nose hangs on the wall of his Hartford office, a gag gift that serves as testament to his olfactory skills.
Although there are many companies that work on odor control as part of overall environmental work, Duffee's firm appears to be one of only a handful that deal exclusively in odor, said John Amoore, who heads Olfacto-Labs, a competing environmental consulting firm in El Cerrito, outside San Francisco.
Duffee said business has boomed over the last decade as the environmental movement has gained momentum and neighborhoods have been built closer to treatment plants and factories.
"You go back 30 years and if you lived in a paper mill town, then you lived in a paper mill town. You knew it and didn't complain about it," he said. "Now society has grown closer to sources of the odors, and they're much less tolerant."
After Duffee captures an odor in a sealed plastic bag, he sometimes turns the smell over to an "odor panel," a group of six consultants who stick their noses into glass cones and sniff gradually increased concentrations of the odor.
One recent afternoon, a panel in Hartford had varying opinions on the odor of the day. One woman thought it smelled like sewage, another said it was more like the leftover water from boiled potatoes, another said some kind of chemical and another thought it smelled like burning garbage.
Duffee took one whiff and, without looking at the bag's label, guessed it was dimethyl sulfide, a component of sewage. It was.
Just about the only thing that will keep Duffee off the scent is a stuffy nose from a rare cold. When that occurs, another staff person does the sniffing, he says.