Stories tagged stink

Nov
11
2008

If anything, sir, you're making it worse: You can wring out the sweat, but not the stink.
If anything, sir, you're making it worse: You can wring out the sweat, but not the stink.Courtesy The Michael
Yeah. Sorry. I don’t make the rules—y’all just have your own weird odors, and there’s nothing you can do to change them. Frowny face.

But, today of all days, try to get past your own problems (though they are disgusting and abounding) and be grateful to the men and women who have fought for your country. Or think about Armistice Day, and the moment on the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918, when the bloodiest war the world had ever seen finally came to an end.

No? That’s not doing it for you? Still stuck on yourself? Fine. We’ll deal with that first.

Oh, by the way, the statement about your having a unique, personal stink is predicated on my assumption that you’re all mice. Not figure-of-speech mice, but actual little rodents. Who have computers and can read. (And, really, what illiterate mice are going to have computers? It just goes to show that you won’t be getting ahead without an education.) Even if you aren’t mice, however, I suppose there’s a decent chance that the personal odor think applies to you (you might not be conscious of it, but that doesn’t mean it’s not there).

There are all kinds of things that can affect your stank. You should know that by now. Bacteria, for one, love eating your excretions and covering you with effluvia of their own. It smells bad. And your excretions aren’t necessarily a walk in the rose garden in the first place. Depending on what you eat, you can end up smelling like the dumpster behind a German restaurant (I’m thinking onions, garlic, and red meat here) or the dumpster behind a South Asian restaurant (ah, sotolon). Really, you could smell like any number of dumpsters across the globe, depending on your tastes.

But it turns out that no matter what stank you might give yourself with all that coffee and garlic pizza, you’ve got a unique stank that’s all your own, and there’s nothing to be done to change it.

See, scientists have been watching little mousies, and they’ve found that although body odors brought about by diet can be confusing to mice in identifying other individuals by their odor, there remains a unique, identifiable, genetically-influenced smell in each mouse, despite the particulars of its diet.

That was a long and bad sentence. What I meant to say was this: no matter what you eat, it seems that you have an unchangeable, unique smell. It says so here. And in far fewer words here.

What’s the upshot of this? First of all, it’s like I said: you’re hopeless, Oldspice. However, the research also suggests that someday technology could be developed that would identify individuals by their unique odor “fingerprints.” A personal odor database could be developed. Think about that—you put your fist through a bakery window just once, and the fuzz has your stink on file forever. Or maybe you wouldn’t have to show your passport to get on a plane—a robot could just sniff you. Another robot, anyway.

A brave new future, huh?

Sep
19
2008

CSI: The Experience will open here at SMM on October 15.

One aspect of crime scene investigation is forensic entomology: the use of insects found on or near a body to help determine the time, manner, and location of death.

And we're fortunate that Valerie Cervenka, the first female board certified forensic entomologist, lives here in St. Paul. She's our Scientist on the Spot right now, so you can read about her work and get her answers to your questions.

And, Buzzketeers, do we have something "special" for you... Lots of forensic entomology studies are done using pigs, because (according to Jessica Snyder Sach's Corpse:

"The soft, near-hairless skin of a domestic pig closely duplicates that of a human, and that the torso of a luau-size porker parallels that of a 160-pound man."

Pig, @2pm, 9-18-08: Our pig, fresh from the freezer.
Pig, @2pm, 9-18-08: Our pig, fresh from the freezer.Courtesy Liza Pryor

That is, the skin, muscle/fat ratio, and other characteristics of pigs are reasonably good approximations of humans'. In death, what happens to a pig, and when, is pretty similar to what happens to human corpses. (If you think that's unpalatable, consider that the other way we can calibrate insect evidence is to do controlled studies at places like Tennessee's "Body Farm," where researchers observe what happens to people instead of pigs. You can search Buzz for the term "body farm" if you're interested in that: we've done a few stories.)

So we've obtained a young pig. (Don't worry: the pig died of natural causes.) And we've put it in a cage, with a webcam, and we're letting it decompose. The camera records a still image every 15 seconds, and we'll eventually turn all those photos into a time lapse, which Val Cervenka will help us interpret. Pretty cool. Pretty gross. And all in the interest of science.

Why didn't we wait for the exhibit? Well, insect activity slows dramatically or even drops off to nothing once the outside temperature gets to about 50 degrees. To follow the pig through most of its stages of decomposition, we had to get it going now.

Want to see what's going on with the decomposing pig right now? Click here. But don't say we didn't warn you. It's graphic.

Sep
16
2008

Look, everybody!: A cat!
Look, everybody!: A cat!Courtesy justinleif
In a delightful reverse-Pepe Le Pew scenario, a Mt. Carmel, Pennsylvania, woman recently mistook a skunk for a cat and was blasted with skunk juice.

Supposedly the woman had mistaken the wild animal for her neighbor’s cat, and was petting it (or attempting to pet it?) when it sprayed her. The skunk then ran into the woman’s home. Police spent hours at the scene (seriously) although there has been no confirmation as to whether or not they were able to retrieve the skunk.

So… first of all: wow. I hope this woman wasn’t extraordinarily elderly, or suffering from some condition that prevents her from distinguishing cats from skunks, because then that would make me a bad person for making fun of her. And I’m surely doing that in my head right now.

Cats, after all, belong to the order felidae, skunks to caniformia. (Skunks technically aren’t mustelids any more—how about that?) Also unlike cats, skunks are characterized by short, powerful legs, long front claws for digging, and a unique black and white striped pattern. And, of course, their pungent anal scent glands, which brink us back to ol’ ma’am skunk.

Close enough to pet the animal, the lady was well inside what we in the skunk business like to call “the danger zone.” Muscles located around their scent producing glands, after all, allow skunks to accurately spray at ranges up to 15 feet. Her close proximity likely means that the woman received a full dose of spray, something around 3 ml. Skunks carry enough scent for about 5 sprays before they need to spend more than a week “recharging.”

If the spray catches you directly in the eyes, it can cause severe burning and eye watering, or even 10 – 15 minutes of blindness in some cases. Most of the time, however, the smell will be your main concern. As this site details, skunk spray is mainly composed of seven volatile molecules. The stinkiest three of them are called “thiols,” compounds that contain a sulfur and hydrogen group. Thiols are known for their powerful repellent odor and, uh-oh, they bond strongly to the proteins in our skin. The remaining four molecules in skunk spray aren’t as stinky initially, but they can be converted to thiols when they interact with water. This is why hair sprayed by a skunk can stink for months after the incident when it becomes damp. This is also why I hate my roommate’s golden retriever.

To deodorize these thiols, one must convert them into compounds that have little odor. Thiols can be changed into less stinky sulfonic acids by oxidizing them with baking soda or hydrogen peroxide, but this, unfortunately, can leave you looking a little fried.

Except for the possibility that there might yet be a skunk in the her house, the Pennsylvania woman may have gotten off pretty light, all things considered. Skunks will only expend spray if they can’t warn another creature off by posturing: they will hiss, stamp their feet, and raise their tails threateningly. These are not generally the actions of a happy cat. It could be that some additional mistakes and oversights were made on the part of the lady, or it could be that the skunk was behaving erratically. If this was the case, it raises another concern: rabies. The CDC states that skunks make up about a third of the reported rabies cases in all species in this country. There haven’t been any reported cases of skunks transmitting rabies to humans in the last couple decades, but it seems to me that this woman has something of the pioneer spirit, and would be a likely candidate for getting bitten by a rabid skunk. But not this time.

And so we salute you, skunk lady, for mistaking a skunk for a cat. I like to think that all of us are a little wiser for it.

Jul
16
2007

It only looks cute. The smell here is very serious: A specially trained German shoe-smelling cat nearly perishes in the line of duty.     (Photo by tomroyal on flickr.com)
It only looks cute. The smell here is very serious: A specially trained German shoe-smelling cat nearly perishes in the line of duty. (Photo by tomroyal on flickr.com)
German police broke into a Kaiserslautern apartment this week after neighbors reported an extremely foul smell seeping into the stairwell. The shutters had been closed up for nearly a week, and mail was collecting in the unit’s box, so the police were prepared to find a very dead body in the apartment. They found no such thing.

What the officers did discover was a pile of very dirty laundry next to a pair of very stinky feet, which were attached to a man who was simply asleep.

How did this happen to the man? Well, foot odor, technically referred to as “stank,” is caused by sweaty feet and bacteria. A warm, moist foot is an ideal place for bacteria to live, and while the mere presence of bacteria on a foot won’t cause a bad smell, the waste they produce from consuming dead skin and sweat will. As your feet get sweatier, more and more bacteria grow down there, and they produce more and more waste, creating an increasingly potent stank.

One of the main culprits of foot odor is brevibacteria. Bervibacteria loves the spots between your toes, and the dead skin on the soles of your feet, and it produces methanethiol, which smells like stinky cheese. This is no coincidence, as stinky cheese gets its aroma from brevibacteria too.

Now, if any of you are in doubt as to whether this foot-based bacterial chemical factory can be so powerful that it could convince your neighbors that you are decomposing in your living room, let me relate to you the true story of my best friend’s freshman roommate. This roommate, who we will call “Jeff,” had feet of such potent stank that the whole hallway of the dormitory smelled like a gym shoe by October. It was so bad that the floor RA threatened to evict my friend and Jeff from the room on health grounds unless the smell was cleared up, “whatever it was.” It is extremely unlikely that Jeff was dead and decomposing, too, because he was often seen walking around, or drinking. I was able to experience the smell firsthand – walking into the room was like having a sweatsock taped over your nose, and this was when “it was starting to get better.” Jeff, however, never noticed the smell, and was convinced that a joke was being played on him.

The moral here, obviously, is to wash your feet often and buy well-ventilated footwear, or else the police will break into your house looking for your dead body. And nobody wants that.

My feet smell like baby roses, but you may be interested in this.

Thanks, neighbors.