Why do paper mills smell so bad?

I’m originally from Pennsylvania, and often would visit a town named Martinsburg that was home to a paper mill. Dear god did this town smell!!! After you were there for a while, you kind of got used to it, but the stench was putrid. It smelled like farts. Why? I assume the chemicals used in the paper making process are the culprit, but what chemicals smell like ass? Some form of sulpher? Note: Martinsburg was a very nice town, with very nice people, and their spring water from Roaring Spring is fantastic, but Peeeeee eeeeeeeeew it stinks.

I went to college in Arcata California which was surrounded by paper mills and noticed the same thing. It’s really bad and people who have never had to deal with it don’t really believe how bad it can be. If the wind was blowing the wrong way I would have to leave the dorms it got so bad. I don’t believe they made paper there but I think they made plywood and particle board so I bet it has something to do with the glues they use… but I don’t really know for sure.

Most paper mills use SO[sub]2[/sub], sulphur dioxide, to bleach paper.It’s a pretty noxious smelling chemical and most likely the source of your discomfort.

I grew up in a paper-mill town, and my dad worked at the mill for more than 30 years, so this is finally a topic I know something about.

Many paper mills use the sulfite chemical process to soften the wood pulp. It has something to do with removing a compound from the cellulose, but I don’t remember exactly what. Anyway, the paper mills cook sulfur (or an iron byproduct, I think; memory’s hazy on this) and mix the result with water to create an acid bath in which wood is immersed; this makes the wood softer for processing. Cooking the sulfur creates that characteristic paper-mill odor.

I’m not complaining, though. The paper mill always smelled like a house, decent clothes, food on the table and a college education to me.

For REAL odor, though, go to a chicken plant. Great Buddha on a pogostick, that’s nasty.

I agree. The people in Lincoln, ME always refer to the odor as the smell of money.

The chemistry I’m doing in my lab right now involves hydrogen sulfide gas (H2S). The stuff you smell is very likely that and I’m guessing is a by product of the acid process mentioned by Sauron. It’s not SO2 which has a very different odor as it forms an acid with the moisture in your nose and burns as you breathe it in. H2S can be formed from putting iron sulfide in acid (as many former boys may remember forms the famous “stink bomb”).

Incidently, H2S is more deadly then hydrogen cyanide but is less insidious since you can smell it and avoid it at very low concentrations. But, I’ve been warned, your nose will become acustomed to it and if your not careful you will breathe enough of it to kill you.

(Stuyguy, who some of you may have noticed is never at a loss for print production terms, wishes to inform the teemsters that papermaking machines are called Fourdriniers in the biz. Don’t know if it’s a trademarked name or not, but it’s the accepted industry term. To continue…)

These two comments reminded me of a story a college classmate once told me:

“The people in Lincoln, ME always refer to the odor as the smell of money.”


“The paper mill always smelled like a house, decent clothes, food on the table and a college education to me.”

Turns out Norman’s dad was a Fourdrinier salesman! If you’ve never seen one, these monsters are about a city block long, so you can imagine how expensive they are. According to Norm, if dad sold one the family would eat for a year. If not, they’d starve.