Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The smell of sulfur

Not our real skunk.
We were sitting peacefully on the couch this morning, Dover and I, when he went eagerly to the door for his first foray out into the morning. I took a cautionary sniff, a necessity this time of year;  the air passed the sniff test, so I slid the doors open and let him out. He tore around the house, out of sight, and within  seconds I knew I had made a grave mistake. Organic sulfur compounds suddenly filled the air. It was only 6 AM, but I called Dover back in a commanding voice. Dover eventually returned back around the corner, looking sheepish and somewhat confused.

I sniffed him, but the outside aroma was so strong due to the surprised skunk that I thought the skunk had missed, but I erred in this judgment. Once Dover was in the house, I realized my mistake.

Tom and I went into action with peroxide, baking soda, and dish detergent. We were short on supplies, because we had recycled old, depleted peroxide in our home-made skunk-off kit but, being optimists, we had not yet laid in a new store. We put together the concoction as best we could with the supplies at hand, washed the repentant creature, followed by a trip into the shower for a further scrub down. The washing machine has been going all day and the downstairs is passable; we have closed off a few rooms upstairs, the ones to which he had repaired for a good roll around on beds and rugs before we understood the extent of this household disaster. He apparently didn't like the smell either, but that won't prevent him from future encounters of a sulfurous kind.
Contemplating his actions.
Repentant or plotting his next exciting encounter? 
Skunks, very cute to look at and reportedly quite appealing creatures to know, are notorious for their chemical defensive prowess. Doing laboratory research on skunk compounds does not endear a researcher to others in the lab area. One curious researcher went around collecting road kill to figure out the compounds in the skunk's defensive spray, but his lab mates forced him to turn to another line of inquiry. The predominant chemicals are now pretty well known to be a mixture of 6 organosulfur compounds and one nitrogen containing compound; the complex mixture also includes smaller amounts of other sulfur compounds. The up close and personal smell differs from the smell from further away for two reasons: dilution, as the compounds go off in their various directions, and chemical composition, which varies with distance because the volatility of some of the most offensive compounds. The compounds are both obnoxious smelling and detectable in very small quantities - it is estimated that we can detect 10 molecules in a billion molecules of air.

The only true remedy (other than time or distance) for a dog who has met a skunk is a mixture of 3% hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, detergent, and water; this mixture chemically changes the compounds. The new compounds don't react with the fur, and they are them more water soluble than those produced by the skunk. When this washing solution was first reported, the chemist had used 30% hydrogen peroxide, but he found that he had changed his chocolate lab into a yellow lab; he revised his recipe to use only 3% hydrogen peroxide. The ingredients must be mixed on the spot, because if they are mixed and stored, reactions will occur that form carbon dioxide and  oxygen gases, which will cause the bottle to explode.