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When you pour water into a clean glass in a small confined room with no or little fresh air circulation, the only smells you perceive are those of the glass and the water (or the impurities from both of them).

However, expose that very glass to a bit of fresh air, and voilà, it starts to smell different, a bit like the (wet) shells of mollusks in the sea or from a sweetwater source (it is not a "fishy" smell in the sense that is smells like fish but rather one reminding of the sea, lakes or rivers).

I found this smell with wet glass, ceramics, porcelain, but apparently not really or not at all with plastic or metal (maybe the smell of metal somehow obstructs perception, or maybe it alters or destroys the chemical compounds).

So what is this smell actually? What chemicals are there causing this smell?

Why does it apparently need contact with fresh air (maybe oxygen radicals or something) to emerge? And it seems to be volatile so that the smell weakens with time (or maybe you just get used to it).

I hope at least some here know what I am talking about... if not, maybe try it out.

Some people are apparently more susceptible to this smell than others (a friend of mine is very susceptible to it while others have no idea what this fuss is all about).

It also works when you get the glass hot and fresh from a dishwasher, though it is recommended to try with a non-scented detergent.

And you absolutely have to try it with non-chlorinated water.

Update: I've come across two substances that may be related to the phenomenon, Trimethylamine and Dimethyl sulfide, however, I don't know how they smell, so I can't really say if any of these are responsible for the odors, but from the Wikipedia articles, trimethylamine sounds more fishy than "mollusky" while dimethyl sulfide is described to be cabbage-like.

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  • $\begingroup$ I am searching for the chemicals involved as well. The two you have mentioned are per se totally fishy and rotten eggs respectively. It might be that in mixture and at extremely low level they smell so. The smell we perceived is well known here but it happened to me that I saw puzzled people elsewhere. In my dialect has a name (raffrescume) but I am not sure if it does exist in my mother tongue. I try to look for lakes and ponds since it might be easier to find out. Also handling eggs improves the chance to get that smell around the kitchen and tools $\endgroup$ – Alchimista Dec 16 '18 at 9:21
  • $\begingroup$ And it should be related to bacterial metabolism. I think is mostly low level of the pair you have mentioned. ... $\endgroup$ – Alchimista Dec 20 '18 at 14:02
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I do have a very similar experience! What the OP calls the mollusk smell, I call it slightly rotting "seaweedy" smell. It has been a very unpleasant experience for us in our new home.

Similar to OP's experience, this seems to be more intense with glasses and ceramics right after the newly washed dishes get exposed to air when the windows are open. But I also detect it with plastic cups as noted below.

In order to eliminate other variables such as dishwasher problems and tap water quality, I bought bottled water and disposable plastic cups. I did the following experiment.

WITH CLOSED WINDOWS

Water from bottle poured in a previously unused plastic cup, sitting for 15 minutes : No smell

Water from bottle poured in a cup and couple of sips taken, sitting for for 15 minutes : No smell

WITH OPEN WINDOWS

Water from bottle in a previously unused plastic cup, sitting for 15 minutes : No smell

Water from bottle in a cup and couple of sips taken, sitting for 5 minutes : Seaweedy smell

So I'm about to conclude that something in the outside air combines with the saliva (and/or chemicals/enyzmes from the detergents) to produce the seeweedy smell! The same thing happens with the newly washed dishes out of the dishwasher, and hand washed dishes after they get exposed to air with the windows open.

Yes, I know this doesn't make any sense to people that haven't experienced it before! It sounds like nonsense, but it's quite annoying every time I take sips from water cup.

I'm almost on the verge of calling up the EPA about it. There must be something in the air, but what...

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    $\begingroup$ Nice findings! I think it's related to microbial metabolism and not restricted to saliva/detergents. You may find a similar smell on wet roads sometimes. Also, it appears to diminish with time, so leaving stuff in the open for some time ahead may improve your situation. $\endgroup$ – Archimedix Jul 8 '15 at 15:53
  • $\begingroup$ I'm not 100% sure yet but I tested this several times. With open windows, water from a bottle in a plastic cup doesn't smell. But after I take 2-3 sips, it starts smelling. With closed windows, there's no smell. Yesterday I ran the dishwasher, and when I unloaded it (closed windows), the glasses had only lemony smell from the detergent. I put one glass (still lukewarm from the dishwasher) outside for two minutes. The rotten seaweed smell was back in full force! I'm really perplexed about this. Maybe there are different mechanisms here... $\endgroup$ – Chinook Jul 8 '15 at 19:10
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The only smell you're perceiving is evaporated water molecules. Since higher temperature increases the rate of evaporation it makes sense the smell of water vapor is more prevalent when the glass is hot. Fresh air has a much larger affect on your ability to smell than it does on the rate at which water evaporates.

So really it's the fresh air that let's you smell the water vapor more easily not the water actually changing composition and smelling differently.

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  • $\begingroup$ I seriously doubt that all water smells "mollusky". And that would contradict that the odor hardly seems to develop in contact with plastics. What I'd consider a true "watery" smell is perceivable with air moisteners. They smell like fog. $\endgroup$ – Archimedix Feb 17 '15 at 6:57
  • $\begingroup$ It's not all water. It is sometimes. $\endgroup$ – Alchimista Dec 20 '18 at 14:00

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