How to defuse a stink bomb
July 12, 2014 12:05 PM   Subscribe

I've bought two secondhand items in the past few years that have a strong, nauseating smell, kind of like tobacco multiplied by ten. Both are plastic-based. What is it and how can I remove it?

The smell reminds me of tobacco, but doesn't smell like residual smoke from clothing, furniture etc - it smells a little like things I've brought home from my parents' house, home to a heavy smoker for 26 years. It's hard to describe any further, other than it's very tenacious, is not affected by sprays of scented products, and can make me feel sick if I inhale too often. I bought a book from eBay once that carried the same smell (albeit lighter) on the bubble wrap, complained to the seller that there was no mention of smoking on the listing, and was told that theirs was a smoke-free home. Either they were lying, or the cause is something else entirely!

The first item is a radio bought from eBay - while I was in the middle of moving house, so I didn't properly unpack and notice the smell until it was too late to do anything about it. The manual, peripherals and radio itself all carried the strong odour. Exposing it to fresh air helped a bit, but I didn't want to use Febreeze etc in case of damage. I don't want to ditch it as it's a specialist radio that's tricky to get hold of, but the smell is an issue.

The second is a set of cosmetic bags bought from a charity shop. These were definitely new - they were tagged, bound with ribbon and kimble-tagged on the zip - but once opened, same horrible death odour. The outsides don't seem to smell - the insides really do. The bags are PVC coated and the smell seems impervious to sprays of scented products. If the smell doesn't come out, no big deal, but I don't want to send them back to the charity shop that way!

Any ideas, Hive mind?
posted by mippy to Home & Garden (9 answers total)
Mothballs? Mothballs have a strong, strange, unpleasant smell that can get into anything and stick around forever. Keep airing them out, and storing them with some activated charcoal might help.
posted by Metroid Baby at 12:28 PM on July 12, 2014

Can you fill it with Borax or bury it in Borax? You can also make a sachet of Borax and put it inside. This has worked for me on other odors, but I know the plastic smell you mean and have no specific advice.
posted by blnkfrnk at 12:55 PM on July 12, 2014

If it doesn't smell of tobacco or mothballs (fairly distinctive scents), I'd wonder if they'd been housed somewhere where people were cooking drugs. My husband had to ID a stolen check and when he opened the evidence baggie, he said the most putrid, death+BO+chemical smell wafted out. We are guessing that the thieves were also into meth based on some other issues.
posted by amanda at 1:36 PM on July 12, 2014

I bought a vintage leather purse that also smelled like cigarette smoke. I tried many of the methods on the internet, except for burying it in cat litter, which is supposed to work. What did work is washing the item, or wiping it down, and putting it in direct sunlight for several days, and placing it in front of a fan at night. It took a week or so, with touchups here and there, but I can use it now, and I have almost completely eradicated the smell.
posted by umwhat at 1:50 PM on July 12, 2014

Another possible source of the smell is burnt (aka dark) cork. It was used as wall and floor covering in the 50s and 60s. It's structured like a sponge, stinks like a fathom of rotten oysters, and the smell is unshiftable. I'm a twitchy asthmatic, and the smart MeFites above have already pointed out all the effective de-scenting techniques I use.
posted by Jesse the K at 2:10 PM on July 12, 2014 [2 favorites]

I'll second the suggestion about sunlight. Do everything else suggested, and then leave the stuff in the sun for days if you can. It's worked for me a lot and I buy damn near everything I use from thrift shops except food and underwear. I know why the ancients worshiped the sun.
posted by fivesavagepalms at 2:35 PM on July 12, 2014

How old are your plastic things...? Here's a little page on old plastics with some cursory notes about the various reeks that show up. Sometimes old plastic just stinks; sometimes it's just: old plastic. I agree that tobacco and mothballs are both potential culprits, but also very distinctive, and there wouldn't be a lot of what-is-that here; you'd know.
posted by kmennie at 3:48 PM on July 12, 2014 [1 favorite]

On clothing and hard surfaces use isopropyl alcohol to remove nicotine residue. If the test spot doesn't clean it's likely petroleum based, esp older plastics and disposables like bubble wrap.
posted by halfbuckaroo at 7:34 AM on July 13, 2014

I have had many unlikely things stop smelling by storing them with coffee grounds. Used or fresh, it doesn't seem to matter. Make sure they are dry, though.
posted by oneirodynia at 4:48 PM on July 13, 2014

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