What's that smell?

The Sunday Times investigates the odours of Singapore's neighbourhoods
Lin Yang , Alexandra Jen Wong and Kon Xin Hua Straits Times 5 Dec 10;

Underneath the Boon Lay MRT station every morning, Mr Ho Boon Han serves fragrant drinks to commuters rushing to catch trains to the city.

But on some mornings, his customers are overpowered by another type of aroma: that of burnt cocoa.

'We're used to it,' said Mr Ho, 57, supervisor at Hockhua Herbal Tea. 'We don't think it's dangerous to our health.'

Last Monday, residents in northern and eastern Singapore caught a whiff of a strange chemical smell, the source of which the National Environment Agency (NEA) still has not determined.

The agency received more than 100 calls during that one day.

But for years, Singaporeans in some neighbourhoods, especially those close to certain industries, have had to live with strong, sometimes pungent odours permeating their walls on a regular basis.

That burnt cocoa smell in the Boon Lay air, for instance, has been a signature scent for 21 years.

Mr Ho said the smell comes every four to five months, and sometimes can last for several days in a row.

The culprits: two cocoa factories about 1km south of the MRT station - Cadbury and ADM Cocoa.

Ms Joanna Ng, head of corporate affairs for Kraft Foods, the parent company of Cadbury, explained that the smell comes from roasting cocoa beans to open their shells, making them easier to grind into cocoa powder.

The NEA has kept track of the number of complaints about this smell, which peaked at 40 in 2003.

In 2004, the agency worked with Cadbury to install an odour control system.

'Our system eliminates over 90 per cent of the odour,' said Ms Ng.

ADM Cocoa also claims to have an odour abatement system, and that the NEA is 'satisfied that it is working properly', said ADM's spokesman Beth Chandler.

NEA said there will still be occasional complaints due to residual odours. So far, only three have been logged this year.

Still, student Keith Lian, 15, who lives in Boon Lay, had a whiff of the smell on Tuesday night.

'It smelled like someone ate chocolate, and then smoked a cigarette,' he said.

In other neighbourhoods, food factories bombard residents with a plethora of odours. Several of these factories are clustered in Bedok while others are located in the Pandan Loop area south of Clementi.

Mr Just Wang, 22, a Bedok resident, said a roasted 'otah' smell had been around for the past couple of years, referring to the spicy, barbecued fish snack. 'It isn't unpleasant,' he said.

A spokesman for the East Coast Town Council said no complaints have been filed so far this year.

But Pandan Loop residents have voiced their displeasure.

Ms Amy Chan, 50, who lives near the factories, spoke of vanilla, chocolate and sometimes pepper scents so strong, 'it makes me want to throw up'.

The NEA logged 57 complaints in 2007 in Pandan, and has asked three factories - two which produce food flavouring and one that waxes defeathered ducks - to install odour scrubbing equipment. Since then, complaints have dropped. Only six people have complained so far this year.

Choa Chu Kang residents do not have it any better: they have had to live with the smell of chicken dung coming from the poultry farms in Sungei Tengah.

Madam Sundari Rangasamy, 52, said that the smell of chicken waste is 'very strong', especially on windy days after the rain.

'I have avoided inviting guests to my home because of the smell,' she said.

Three of the four poultry farms moved out of the area in 2002. The final one, Seng Choon Farm, was relocated last month because it failed to take effective measures to eliminate the odour, according to an NEA spokesman.

NEA received 57 complaints last year regarding the unpleasant smell, down from 136 the year before. Mr Chris Koh, senior group director at property agency Dennis Wee Group, said that despite the smell there, property prices have not been affected.

'People buy based on location and amenities, and not on the occasional smell. Demand still outstrips supply,' he said.

But some property agents tell clients they are familiar with not to buy.

Ms Chen Shu Yun, 58, was discouraged from buying a home in Choa Chu Kang in 2006.

'My agent told me the chicken smell was really bad,' she said.

She purchased a five-room flat in Bukit Panjang instead.