Action News Jax Investigates: ‘Vile, sickening odor’ in Jacksonville neighborhood

The city is launching a new study as a result of lawsuits, cease and desist orders and thousands of complaints.

JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — Action News Jax is investigating what local residents say is a “vile, sickening odor” in their neighborhood.

“When you look at that plant behind us you think what?” Action News Jax’s Ben Becker asked Josh Gellers, a board member of the Murray Hill Preservation Association.

“I think it is something that needs to be investigated to get to the source of the smell,” Gellers said.

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Gellers — among others — said the stink is coming from the International Flavors & Fragrances factory on Lane Avenue.

“We’ve had people complain of headaches, nausea, vomiting, skin burning sensations,” said Gellers.

There have been lawsuits, a city cease and desist citation and thousands of complaints about alleged chemical smells coming from the factory, which produces ingredients for common household items like soap and toothpaste.

Action News Jax created a “stink map” using the odor complaints submitted to the city’s My-Jax portal from January 1, 2020-September 14, 2021. It shows a bulk of the complaints were centered in Riverside and Murray Hill — IFF is located nearby.

In the city’s cease and desist cease citation, IFF was cited for complaints that came from six different households. It faces a fine of up to “$10,000 per day of violation.”

“Many believe IFF is the source — what do you say to them?” Becker asked Michael Munz, a spokesperson for IFF.

“There’s no evidence IFF is the source,” said Munz.

Munz said the company has conducted a study and claims the smell is not coming from the plant.

“Where’s it coming from, if it’s not you?” pressed Becker.

“That’s the same question we would like to know the answer to,” Munz responded.

The City of Jacksonville is also trying to find out.

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In August, it approved an ordinance to pay a company called Envirosuite $125,000 to conduct a one-year study, starting by the end of 2021.

Envirosuite will place eleven devices it said are “sensitive to hydrogen sulfide, ammonia and volatile organic compounds” around “areas of concern” using “real-time” odor impacts and a “color-coding system.”

“Now getting censors around the area can prove where smell is coming from,” said city councilwoman Randy DeFoor, who represents Murray Hill. “What I was surprised to learn is that the Environment Protection Agency doesn’t address smells,” said DeFoor. “You have to prove it’s damaging to the environment or a human being but a smell isn’t sufficient.”

Becker emailed the EPA and it confirmed in a statement that “although environmental odors are not nationally regulated in the United States, many cities and local governments have established nuisance odor regulations.”

However, according to modeling data from the EPA, the IFF factory does release allowable levels of chemicals in the air, which aren’t connected to odor including chlorine and formaldehyde.

“We have to live within the EPA guidelines and that is what we are doing,” said Munz.

But Becker discovered through the EPA that IFF has been cited by the state of Florida as a “significant noncomplier” since October 2020 for “Preparedness, Prevention and Emergency Procedures.” Becker asked the state for more specifics to determine if it’s tied to any odor or chemical issues, and is waiting to hear back.

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“How confident are you the study will determine what’s going on?,” Becker asked Gellers.

“I think the study will be an immense benefit to the community,” Gellers said. “I think it will be difficult to hide from a smell that is so persuasive throughout the local area.”

A final report on the findings of the city study will not be released until March 2023.