Some 35 miles southwest of Seattle is Tacoma, the third-largest city in the state of Washington. Once known as a depressed industrial city, Tacoma has emerged today as a vibrant and livable place, thanks in part to many restorations and developments around its downtown core. The city features many attractions, including several museums and picturesque views of Mount Rainier (the name “Tacoma” actually derives from the Salish word for the mountain, Tahoma).
But for all Tacoma has to offer, it remains the butt of jokes among many Western Washingtonians. Pass through Tacoma along Interstate 5 when the conditions are right, and you’ll catch a whiff of something putrid. It’s not coming from you (or anyone else in your vehicle). You’re experiencing the famous Tacoma Aroma.
What Is the Tacoma Aroma?
The Tacoma Aroma, also called the Aroma of Tacoma, is a rancid, unpleasant odor associated with the city. Most would describe it as that kind of sulfuric, rotten egg kind of smell.
Thankfully, the aroma isn’t all that noticeable throughout the city (though it can be when the conditions are right). Instead, the smell tends to concentrate around the Tacoma tide flats, which have been heavily industrialized areas of the city both past and present.
The smell is most commonly noticed by travelers along Interstate 5. Those who drive frequently in the region know to roll up their windows when exits for Tacoma start appearing along the freeway.
Tacoma has taken on a bit of a negative reputation because of the smell, especially among other cities in the Puget Sound region. And word of the aroma has even emerged in popular culture. In the 1979 Frank Zappa song, “Jewish Princess”, he mentions a “garlic aroma that could level Tacoma”.
What Causes the Smell?
Pinning down a direct cause of the Tacoma Aroma is tough, mainly because the smell is likely the result of multiple factors.
Tacoma’s reputation for stinking has been around since at least the 1940s, at a time when the city had already witnessed decades of industrial growth. This growth was spurred by Tacoma’s port and railroad, which helped foster the development of various pulp pills, rendering plants, chemical factories, petroleum processors, and aluminum smelters.
Then there is the sediment of Commencement Bay, the primary bay around which Tacoma is built up around. This natural smell combines with all the industrial vapors, where they concentrate in the air above thanks to the geographical layout of the region.
So in essence, the Tacoma Aroma is caused by some 100 years of industrial development around the tide flats of Commencement Bay. And the smell itself is a mix of natural decay, hydrogen sulfide, the vapors of animal rendering, and assorted industrial fumes.
The good news is that the smell has lessened quite significantly today, thanks in part to more environmentally friendly manufacturing and refining processes. But “lessened” does not mean the smell is gone entirely. It is most definitely still there (as the author of this post can personally attest to).
Is the Odor Safe?
There is no real evidence to suggest that the Tacoma Aroma presents any real long term health risks to healthy individuals–especially at its current levels. But that isn’t to say the odor hasn’t caused problems in the past.
For those suffering from asthma or other lung-related illnesses, the poor air quality can make it more difficult to breathe (similar to what one might experience on a smoggy or smokey day). Some residents have talked about having to stay indoors when the smell has gotten particularly bad.
A famous example of the Tacoma Aroma creating issues came in 1980, when Bruce Springsteen and his band came to town for a concert. The fumes were reportedly enough to make the iconic singer ill. According to one witness:
“[The group] didn’t like the air, they didn’t like the smell of the rooms. They were all feeling lousy.”
We should also note that there’s some speculation The Boss was just sick with the flu. But the point remains that the aroma has been strong enough in the past to at least make people feel uncomfortable.
But even if traces of the smell remain, efforts to improve air pollution in the region have certainly helped take away some of the risk factor. As such, we’d encourage paying this thriving city a visit if you’re ever in the area. Tacoma is an entirely safe place to stop and smell the roses–just don’t take too big of a whiff.
Think Tacoma sounds smelly? It’s got nothing on 1858 London. We introduce to you London’s Great Stink of 1858.