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Who taught YOU to drive?

Skunk smell can linger, despite your best removal efforts

Skunks have a potent odor that is impossible to ignore. Skunks have a potent odor that is impossible to ignore.
By Peter DeMarco
June 19, 2011

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The van full of half-asleep high school students was plodding along the dark country road when something, suddenly, went bump in the night.

“I kept saying we just ran over a big stick,’’ said their teacher, Anne DeMarco, who had gotten up before dawn to drive her Future Farmers of America students from New Hampshire to the Big E fair in Springfield. “They didn’t believe me.’’

DeMarco, my sister, was overly optimistic, of course. The van had hit a skunk, and pretty soon its unpleasant smell wafted through the vehicle, lingering for the entire 100-mile trip.

“It is believed the smell peaked in Worcester,’’ she quipped. “After a full day of competing, the team returned to the van at 8 p.m. only to have the smell with them the whole way home. There was no solution except to drop off the van Sunday morning when the rental place was closed!’’

Kids being kids, my sister’s students still managed to have fun. But the story raises a great question: How do you rid a car of skunk odor?

Stuck with it We all know that skunk spray stinks, but I didn’t know just how potent the smell is until I spoke with Stephen Vantassel, a former Springfield wildlife controller who’s now with the University of Nebraska-Lincoln’s School of Natural Resources.

“We can smell skunk musk down to 10 parts per billion,’’ he said. “That’s like saying if you have a billion pennies, and just 10 of them are skunk smell, you’ll be able to smell it.’’

Contrary to popular belief, tomato juice does not eliminate the smell, Vantassel said.

“Your nose gets tired of smelling the skunk. It’s called olfactory fatigue. So when you introduce a new smell — tomato juice — you smell that instead.’’ But the skunky smell is still there.

Bleach would get rid of the odor, but using bleach might discolor your car’s paint, carpeting, or tires, so that’s not a good option.

Simply airing your car out will help, as the odor dissipates over time. But Vantassel advises against just letting nature take its course.

“People either forget, or don’t understand, that once you’ve aired out your car and you think it’s skunk-free, if the humidity rises that sort of reactivates the odor,’’ he said.

To eliminate the smell you really should remove the source, Vantassel said, which means getting rid of whatever skunk DNA is still on your vehicle. Wash the undercarriage and tires thoroughly with soap and water, and take a long drive to help clear particles from your tire treads.

Beyond that, deodorizers for inside your car can help, particularly those that chemically neutralize skunk musk, as opposed to just masking like tomato juice.

A list of several brands, including both over-the-counter products such as Skunk-Off and professional-strength mixtures such as Fresh Wave, can be found online at the Internet Center for Wildlife Damage Management, www.icwdm.org, which Vantassel edits.

Some caution Before using any product, read the label to make sure you want to use it from a health standpoint. Also be aware that home remedies that get skunk odor out of clothing — such as vinegar, ammonia, or a popular solution of hydrogen peroxide, baking soda, and dish soap — might discolor car paint or carpeting.

“You want to make sure the cure isn’t worse than the disease,’’ Vantassel said.

He recommends testing any solution before widespread use, or using touch-free products that you can simply leave in an open container in your car as they do their deodorizing magic.

Also, if you wash your car at home, stay back from the areas you’re spraying and keep kids and pets away.

“It’s not that rabies is transmitted through the skunk spray, but if you’re dealing with skunk parts, you don’t know if they have any spinal tissue in them’’ in which there could be rabies, said Vantassel. “If you’re blasting a hose and water’s shooting back and your mouth is open . . . just think about what you’re doing. People sometimes get careless.’’

Follow these tips and most of the odor should disappear, if not immediately, then relatively soon. “It’s not plutonium: it doesn’t have a half-life of 5,000 years,’’ Vantassel joked. “If someone is really smelling it for much longer than a week or two, either they got a blast that really got into things, or they have an extremely sensitive nose.’’

Peter DeMarco lives in Somerville and can be reached at demarco@globe.com. He also updates a Facebook page, “WhotaughtYOUtodrive?’’