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Does Leon Sheffield pass the sniff test?
Teachers’ noses rating air odor

By Melanie B. Smith· 340-2468

Take a sniff and rate the whiff. That’s what a few faculty members at Leon Sheffield Magnet School are doing now.

Every school day about 8 and 11 a.m., and 2 p.m., they smell the air and judge whether it has a light, medium or strong odor or none at all. They mark choices on a chart.

The study isn’t for a student’s science project.

Principal Barbara Sittason said the ratings system came at the request of Decatur Utilities.

The subjective ratings are a way to collect data on the odor from the waste-water treatment plant on Alabama 20.

Leon Sheffield is across the highway from the plant.

The idea is to learn if there is a pattern to the stink, days or times when it is worse at the school.

Reading coach Betty Howell said she sticks her head out a classroom door that opens to the outside for her daily tests.

“Inside the building I don’t smell it much, only rarely,” she said.


The project will continue for the rest of the school year, said Gary Borden, DU manager of gas, water and waste water.

He said the ratings will provide data for DU to evaluate and, hopefully, learn what factors affect the odor, like weather and particular waste materials put into the system by different customers.

Sittason said DU is doing its best to make the air fresher for employees and students.

The smell is nothing new. Decatur has had a school and the waste-water plant in the same locations for generations.


In 2002, the utility spent $1.2 million for a system to help reduce the smell as part of a $21 million upgrade at the plant.

DU installed a $5,500 system this fall to spray mist on the sludge to help mask its odor, sort of like a giant air freshener. Borden let Sittason choose the scent, and she picked a citrus fragrance.

The city renovated the school and made it the magnet school for third-, fourth- and fifth-graders as part of a desegregation plan.

But about the time the new students and faculty arrived in August, what Borden called an “upset” at the plant created a bad spell of odor. He said most of the smell came from an unexpected amount of sludge that workers had to haul away.

Sittason said flagrant odors are usually less on cool days and in the mornings. She said DU officials tell her the smell is worse with a north wind.

Sittason said she noticed a few days were worse than others in November, the first month that she and teachers recorded their opinions.

Students aren’t in on the rate-the-smell project.

Sittason said they tend to open a door to go outside and immediately bury their noses in their shirts if there’s the slightest odor.

Art teacher Linda Miller turned the problem into a promotion. She designed a T-shirt for a November competition showing a turkey holding its nose and the message “The smell of victory.”

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