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Chocolate pollution? EPA targets candy factory

The EPA recently cited a Chicago chocolate factory for alleged clean-air violations, and officials are hurrying to install equipment that will reduce emissions — and stop the smell.
/ Source: The Associated Press

For decades, commuters and tourists have delighted in the mouthwatering smells radiating from the Blommer Chocolate Co.'s factory near the Chicago River downtown.

But following a federal agency's complaint, the aroma will soon disappear.

The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency recently cited the family-run business for alleged clean-air violations, and officials are hurrying to install equipment that will reduce emissions — and stop the smell.

"It'll start to go away as we put pollution abatement equipment in place," the company's vice president, Rick Blommer, told The Associated Press.

The company that makes chocolate liquor, cocoa butter and other products for bulk sale is trying to resolve allegations that its cocoa-crushing process causes air pollution.

Odor expert: Bitter loss
Still, the demise of the rich, brownie smell spilling from the 66-year-old Blommer plant will be a bitter loss, said odor researcher Alan Hirsch, head of the Chicago-based Smell and Taste Treatment and Research Foundation.

"Chocolate smells put people in a relaxed state," said Hirsch, who likened the effect of chocolate vapors on the brain to an antidepressant. "It's been shown bad odors increase aggression; pleasant ones make people more docile. So you could say the chocolate smell is a real service to Chicago."

Smells are a big deal in this city once closely associated with the stench of slaughtered cows and whose very name etymologists say comes from the American Indian words for skunk or onion.

But a pleasant smell to some is pollution to others.

In citing the company earlier this month, the EPA said inhaling the plant's emissions in high concentrations can harm children, the elderly and people with heart and lung diseases.

But within smelling range of the factory, it's nearly impossible to find anyone who doesn't rave about the chocolate aroma.

"I love it," said 48-year-old Maria Negron, who passed by the factory on her way home from work. "Who wouldn't like the smell of chocolate?"

There's at least one person in Chicago who apparently doesn't.

The EPA's inspection of the plant and the subsequent citation was prompted by a complaint from someone about the smell and emissions from the factory, the agency said.

The EPA declined to provide that person's name and would not talk about the complaint.

Blommer's owners also wouldn't discuss the allegations, saying only that new filters to stop the smell would be installed soon.

Activists see misguided action
While environmentalists agree there are some legitimate concerns about the chocolate factory's emissions, they also question the EPA's priorities in going after the Blommer company.

"It's like crushing an ant when there's a pack of wolves around — then claiming you have saved people from harm," said Brian Urbaszewski, of the American Lung Association's Chicago chapter.

Far more pollution is created by power plants, which pump some 15,000 tons of particles into the air annually, he said.

Even so, Urbaszewski doesn't lament the disappearance of the chocolate smell because any high concentration of airborne particles, whether from cocoa dust or coal, can irritate respiratory illnesses.

"A lot of people may get a warm fuzzy feeling from this chocolate smell," he said. "Some people may get the same warm fuzzy feeling from smelling tobacco — but that doesn't mean it's good for you."

That doesn't make it any easier for 64-year-old Ron Weber, who works at a bookstore several blocks from the factory and says he will miss the smell that has been a small but meaningful daily pleasure as he walks to and from work.

"I can't imagine a more marvelous, more positive smell in the world," he said. "I will miss it."