country life, nature, Uncategorized, writing

The Science Behind the Stink

SkunkWhat do you call a skunk that flies?
A smell-i-copter!

I’m a science nerd.  So after our little white dog (I say little, she’s actually 60 pounds, ha!) tangled with a skunk and lost, I became interested in the chemistry behind skunk spray and the miracle deskunking mixture in which we bathed the smelly culprit.

Did you know a skunk’s spray contains the same compounds found in garlic and onions and even your own hair?  They are called thiols.  And the reason they are so stinky is that they are one hydrodgen atom attached to one sulfur atom.  Sulfur is notably stinky.  Think rotten eggs kind of stinky.

To make matters worse, the spray is oily, not just watery.  So it “sticks” to everything, namely one white lab mix that answers to the name “Roxy.”  When I touched my dog where she’d been sprayed, the oily liquid stuck to me and my hands.  It doesn’t simply wash off like other smells.  It’s like when you get garlic or onion on your hands when cooking – the smell just won’t come off.  That’s those pesky thiols at work again.

The old wisdom of washing a skunky dog in tomato juice or even feminine hygiene products was an act of futility because these remedies did nothing to alter the chemistry of skunk spray.  Instead, it relied on olfactory fatigue to trick the bather into submission.  After smelling the skunk spray at high doses, the human nose gets tired and becomes temporarily unable to smell the smell.  So the tired nose would smell the only the tomato juice and believe the skunk odor to be gone.  But someone with a fresh nose could easily determine that was in fact, horribly, horribly false.

But in 1993, a chemist named Paul Krebaum developed the skunk odor removal recipe we used the other night.  (If I had Paul’s address, I’d send him a thank you note and a box of Krispy Kremes.)

Krebaum’s recipe is effective because it tackles the smell at the molecular level.  His recipe oxidizes the thiols into sulfonic acids, which are odorless.  So instead of covering up the smell or washing the smell away, the recipe literally neutralizes the odor into something much more benign.  Genius!

Different skunks actually have different chemical make ups to their spray.  So a spotted skunk will have a slightly different spray than a striped skunk.  And skunk spray is highly flammable.  So never, ever, leave your Bic out where a skunk can get it.

As smelly as the Roxy dog was, it could have been much worse.  Scientists say that over the course of human evolutionary development, our noses have been shrinking.  There was a time when the nose made up 45% of the total mass of our heads.  Think about that the next time you catch a whiff of something particularly odoriferous.

So there you have it.  A joke, a science lesson and a paleoanthropology lesson all wrapped up in one  Friday morning post.

You’re welcome. 🙂



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