Is this flashlight going to kill me?
May 21, 2012 7:12 AM   Subscribe

This thing is giving off an awful odor and I have no idea what's causing it.

So I went shopping for a recent campout and picked up a cheap backup flashlight at the dollar store. This one. The style and model etc don't really matter, all that's important is that it's made with that same cheap Chinese plastic and has that smell that you notice when you walk into a store like this or, say, a Harbor Freight Tools.

This thing smells awful. And what's worse, the smell rubs off onto any skin or clothing that touches it. It got so bad and so annoying I had to quarantine this thing to the garage and I won't let the kids near it.

So first off, WHAT is this stuff made from? My best guess is that there's some kind of mold release agent on the plastic/rubber that hasn't been cleaned off. I don't trust this stuff to be 100% safe, but I'm curious if anyone knows more about the source of the material and/or smell. Thanks.
posted by JoeZydeco to Technology (18 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I suspect it's the same thing going on in this question I asked. Petroleum is just stinky. I'd toss that flashlight without regret.
posted by Burhanistan at 7:17 AM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

The plastic is probably off-gassing. I recently found that this is what actually gives a new car that "new car smell." I don't know if it is related to the general quality of the plastic or just to what particular chemicals are used in any plastic of a kind regardless of quality. I would guess in the long run if you were in a closed area it would be bad for you, but it would have to wait in line for all of the other chemicals in our environment to take their toll first. Often the smell seems to go away, but I have things made of rubber or plastic that stank for years so YMMV. If it bothers you too much toss it in the rubbish and pick up a small metal flashlight. No stink there.

If it comes off on your hands I would just bin it. That just doesn't sound right that it comes off on your hands and clothes.
posted by chosemerveilleux at 7:52 AM on May 21, 2012

Incidentally, I have been to several entire cities in China that smell exactly like you describe!

I'd toss that flashlight without regret.

I'm not sure I'd toss it without some regret. I mean you bought it, it's your problem now. Tossing it just passes it on down the line. You could try and use some sort of (safer? the jury is still out on some off-gasses...) solvent to remove whatever may be on the outside. You might try a good old fashioned soap-and-water wash first and move to alcohol next. Test anything on a spot of it as it might change the properties of the plastic "rubber" and make it either soften or harden in bad ways.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 7:52 AM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

> Tossing it just passes it on down the line.

Well, it's going to be around for thousands of years anyway. Might as well send it to the landfill now rather than a short time later (in terms of its lifespan). Who else would want it if it stinks?
posted by Burhanistan at 7:57 AM on May 21, 2012

Not all trash goes to the landfill, some gets incenerated or dumped at sea. Besides that, it is a useful tool despite the smell. As long as the off-gassing is not actually toxic, you should at least give it to a place that takes donations.
posted by The 10th Regiment of Foot at 8:09 AM on May 21, 2012

Have you tried washing it with soap and water?
posted by Blasdelb at 8:11 AM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I would open it up and leave it in the bright sun for a full day or so. If that doesn't burn off and air out the smell, toss it. It comes from China to the dollar store, and there is no telling what it's made of, or what awful conditions it experienced on the boat ride over.
posted by caclwmr4 at 8:16 AM on May 21, 2012 [5 favorites]

I understand outgassing of vinyls and plastics, but this thing is actually rubbing it's smell onto other items. I'm of the opinion that there's some residue left on that it causing the problem.

I'm going to try washing it down with soap and water, maybe some rubbing alcohol, and leaving it outside to dry. Like others have said, I don't want to make this someone else's problem.
posted by JoeZydeco at 9:08 AM on May 21, 2012

I had a steering wheel cover doing the same thing to me for a month or so. I'm confident that this problem will be solved with time - just hang the flashlight up in your garage and come back to it in a month or two.
posted by komara at 9:13 AM on May 21, 2012

I think komara has it. Even if there's a high amount of offgassing, or it's coated in a residue that's offgassing, it'll die down with time. Those chemicals are by their nature volatile, and will evaporate. The situation should stabilize after a while.
posted by Scientist at 9:25 AM on May 21, 2012

"I understand outgassing of vinyls and plastics, but this thing is actually rubbing it's smell onto other items. I'm of the opinion that there's some residue left on that it causing the problem."

I think you've likely got the right idea, since it is transferring the smell (does the transferred smell last any significant length of time), it may be some kind of volatile oil or resin.

If soap and water as well as rubbing alcohol don't work, you might try moving on to vinegar (acetic acid), nail polish remover (acetone, use gloves in a ventilated area), and ammonia.
posted by Blasdelb at 9:44 AM on May 21, 2012

I've bought cheap stuff like that too. My personal theory is that instead of using actual rubber, they are using plastic with a heavy dose of plasticizer to make it feel rubbery. That happens to smell like gasoline. (Hell, it may BE gasoline.)
posted by gjc at 9:46 AM on May 21, 2012 [2 favorites]

The transferred smell lasts a VERY long time which is what worried me in the first place. If it gets on your skin it takes 2-3 washings with soap to remove it.

I've had a lot of plastic/plastic-like things that have outgassed and I recognize what's happening. But it's this chinese stuff (like 10th Regiment noted) that is an order of magnitude worse than anything else I've worked with.

The heavy plasticizer angle is interesting since this flashlight seems to be designed to have that rubberized-slightly-tacky feel (like some mobile phone cases).
posted by JoeZydeco at 10:16 AM on May 21, 2012

That is definitely weird.

It just occurred to me, would you know how to recognize the smell of formaldehyde?
posted by Blasdelb at 12:01 PM on May 21, 2012

I've been through enough high-school science classes to remember the smell, and this isn't it. But high school was also a few decades ago... =)
posted by JoeZydeco at 12:32 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

I just went through this exact same thing with a pair of bike shoes. I could not figure out where the smell was coming, and I finally tracked it down to a box holding a pair of bike cleats. Inside there were these two black foam rubber squares. I'm not sure if they were just packaging or meant as some sort of spacer or insert, but I could not believe how that smell lingered. I just tossed them as they didn't seem critical.

I also had a cheap tripod with lots of little rubber bits that had the exact same smell that persisted for a very long time. I just went over and took a whiff and it seems to have subsided now after several years. So, time might be factor, but also temperature. It might smell more if it is warm too as I remember it got worse when it was in a storage room that didn't get much AC.

Maybe try washing it off with something harsh like Goo Gone (though wear gloves and test a small area as it may melt the rubber). And then try febreezing the hell out of it (just spray it all over it and let that sit for a while).
posted by This_Will_Be_Good at 2:21 PM on May 21, 2012

Toss it. I've seen stuff like this and any potential risk is offset by the fact it cost you nearly nothing. I doubt it's off-gassing. I've bought crap like this before where it just sort of sweats invisible oil.

Learn your lesson and then go buy a real flashlight.
posted by chairface at 5:07 PM on May 21, 2012 [1 favorite]

This may sound slightly weird, but I have a manual breast pump made out of a plastic that smells terrible. So terrible that I thought something was wrong with it, or that it was dirty (it was a strong musty smell). The smell even transferred to the bottles of expressed milk when I used it. I was curious so I googled it -- it turned out that the company had actually had a FAQ on their website addressing the smell issue. They said it was a harmless odor due to one of the plastics. Probably harmless like they say, but I haven't used it since. (It's actually still stinking up the kitchen cabinet that it's stored it, and I think I need to quarantine it elsewhere.)
posted by statolith at 10:20 AM on May 22, 2012

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