Field of Science

Perils of Summer 2: Mephitis Squared

It's war on my dad's farm: humans versus Mephitis mephitis, night time maneuvers complete with chemical weapons. Currently the skunks hold the high ground.

Last night my brother's dog threatened a skunk, with predictable results. The collateral damage included my shoes and feet. The Reverend's Wife produced a bottle of something guaranteed to elminate the smell and we decontaminated me and the dog on the lawn. I was more cooperative about being hosed down. The odor was overpowering, and even after twice deskunking me, my kids swore I still smelled of skunk.

Skunk musk is a mixture of low molecular weight thiols, sulfur containing compounds that have the basic structure ☐-S-H (where the box represents a functional group, such as methyl or butyl), and related compounds called thioacetates. Most thiols have a characteristic, and awful, odor. (Thioacetates don't smell quite so badly.) The simplest thiol is methane thiol, also known as methyl mercaptan, which is used to spike methane (natural gas) so that leaks can be detected. (Methane is actually odorless.) Humans can detect thiols at very low concentrations, less than 1 ppm, which explains why my kids could still pick up the odor.

Skunk odor can be neutralized by converting the thiols to less odiferous molecules. One way this can be accomplished is by reacting the thiols with hydrogen peroxide, which oxidizes the thiol to a sulfonic acid ( ☐-SO3H), which has virtually no odor. Bleach (a strong oxidizing agent) will work as well. A similar technology is used to remove thiols from industrial waste water, where the thiols are converted to disulfides ( ☐-S-S- ☐), which are oils that separate easily from the water.

Mercaptan comes from the Latin mercurium captans, something that seizes or captures mercury. Sulfur reacts very effectively with mercury, and one way to clean up a mercury spill is to sprinkle sulfur on the mercury. Thiol is Greek for sulfur.

If you need a recipe to remove skunk odor, try Humbolt's list. I can personally vouch for the effectiveness of the pet/human version. Note that tomato juice is not particularly effective.

1-para-methen-8-thiol is an uncharacteristically and pleasantly scented thiol more commonly known as grapefruit mercaptan.

More demystified chemical perils of summer...

Urrrrrr - it itches!

The spring was cold and so the itch to get outdoors once the warm weather arrived was hard to resist. As moms will tell you, scratching just makes the itching worse, and scratching even metaphorical itches can raise welts. Ask anyone who has heeded the siren call of summer and ended up with hives, or worse yet, encountered a patch of poison ivy.

My niece and I took a tour last week of the Mutter Museum in Philadelphia which has a great collection of wax models of dermatological pathology, used for teaching students in the days before slides and PowerPoint, including hives or urticaria. The name comes from the Latin for nettle, and the resulting skin wheals certainly bear some resemblance to nettle stings (as my youngest can attest after a close encounter with that plant). Histamine leaking from mast cells in the skin is responsible for hives' principal misery - itching.

True misery is reserved for those who have contacted Toxicodendron radicans - poison ivy - or a relative. These plants produce urushiol, which binds tightly to proteins in the skin. Molecules like this are called haptens, which comes from the Greek "to fasten". Antibodies don't recognize the small molecule until it fastens onto its target. Then the body reacts, in this case triggering the characteristic linear rash, and keeps reacting until the invader detaches from its binding site.

Despite the similarity in names between urticaria and urushiol, they come from different roots. Urushiol was first isolated from the Japanese lacquer tree - the urushi - by a Japanese chemist, Miyama.

Other haptens can react with the same sites as urushiol, including substances found in mango skin and fresh cashew nuts, with similar unfortunate consequences.

Urushiol isn't just a weekend gardener's nuisance, but can cause serious problems for fire fighters in working brush fires in areas such as the California hills, where poison sumac, another urushiol producing plant, thrives. The chemistry gives some clues to helping prevent and treat urushiol reactions. Application of an organic derivative of an absorbent mineral (bentonite) can soak up and trap any oil before it reaches the skin and binds- this is the principal behind the commercial product Ivy Block. Alternatively, something that binds strongly to the urushiol target but is not itself a hapten could act as a preventative. D-Limonene, found in citrus skins, has been floated as a possibility, but I couldn't find any evidence that it works!

Once the stuff has bound, you just have to wait it out. It takes a couple of weeks for the bulk of the urushiol-protein complexes to break down. In the meantime, steroids can reduce the inflammatory reaction and histamine blockers, H1 (like Benadryl) or H2 (Tagamet or Zantac) can provide some relief from the itch.