Chemical causes of the typical burnt smell after accidental fires

Heitmann, Katharina; Wichmann, Hubertus; Bahadir, Müfit
November 2009
Analytical & Bioanalytical Chemistry;Nov2009, Vol. 395 Issue 6, p1853
Academic Journal
The components responsible for the typical burnt smell that occurs after accidental fires (e.g. in buildings) were identified. For this purpose, samples of odorous materials were taken from different real fire sites. Their volatile fractions were analysed by means of thermal desorption, headspace analysis and solid-phase microextraction (SPME) combined with gas chromatography–mass spectrometry (GC/MS). Measurements performed with SPME gave the highest number of analytes as well as the highest signal intensities. A divinylbenzene/carboxen/polydimethylsiloxane SPME fibre was found to be the most suitable for this task. To distinguish the odour-active compounds from the ca. 1,400 identified volatiles concentrated by SPME, an olfactory detection port was attached to the GC/MS and the column effluent was assessed by panellists. The results revealed that eleven odorous compounds were present in most of the investigated samples: acetophenone, benzyl alcohol, 4-ethyl-2-methoxyphenol, 2-hydroxybenzaldehyde, 2-hydroxy-5-methylbenzldehyde, 2-methoxyphenol, 2-methoxy-4-methylphenol, 2-methylphenol, 3-methylphenol, 4-methylphenol and naphthalene. Their odour activities were confirmed in additional olfactory experiments, and the relative ratios of these eleven compounds were determined. Based on these ratios, standard solutions that presented an intense odour with typical characteristics of the burnt smell were produced.


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