16 November 2007

Maple Syrup and Mercaptan

Great... Now I'm Starvin'

Remember like 2 years ago in the fall, I think it was late October or early in November, one day suddenly the whole city smelled like maple syrup? And no one knew where the F it was coming from? There were so many calls that the city's Office of Emergency Management coordinated efforts with the Police and Fire Departments, the Coast Guard and the City Department of Environmental Protection to look into it... and I don't think they ever found anything. Like the Keystone Cops searching for a BBQ in the woods. Amazing.

While most people were freaking out thinking it was some sort of chemical attack; I was suddenly quite hungry for pancakes and waffles. I guess the smell of an engine overheating and your anti-freeze boiling over does sort of smell like a short stack o' flapjacks smothered in maple syrup but who knows, right?

We all survived even though it was never really figured out what the smell was or where it was coming from. Creepy, no? Oh, here I found an old article about it from The Times; "Good Smell Perplexes New Yorkers By KAREEM FAHIM Published: October 28, 2005".

I found this old article from NY1 as well: Maple Syrup Anyone? City Investigating Source Of Sweet Smell

So anyway, I guess the other night people were noticing this smell again. Some two years later, at the same time of year. Weird.

Gothamist seems to think the smell must be some sort of "cold weather phenomena". They've documented several cameos of the syrup smell; much more than I even recall. Check these links from Gothamist: The smell has made return visits in early December 2005, January 2006, March 2006 and November 2006.

30 Rock even reference the maple phenom the other night which was odd timing.

Anywho, this reminds me of an article I wanted to write about the inimitable smell of methanethiol or methyl mercaptan or more simply just plain old mercaptan.

Mercaptan is a colourless gas that smells like rotting cabbage. In reality, its a very, very important stench of a chemical because mercaptan is mostly used to give odourless gases a stink for warning purposes. Due to the extremely low odor threshold of thiols in general, mercaptan is often added to otherwise odorless gasses, enabling people to detect leaks by smell.

The gas in your stove really has no smell at all, but without the mighty stench of mercaptan, you would never know if you had a gas leak; you'd just pass out and then your house would explode. Pretty cool, right?

Mercaptan is also a byproduct of asparagus metabolism in some people. It is responsible for a noticeable change in the odour of urine as early as a few hours after eating asparagus. I know because this happens to me. In fact, there are a lot of myths about this smell and being able to detect the smell. Some say after eating asparagus everyones urine smells noticeably different but only those with higher intelligence can and will pick up on the smell and notice the peculiar difference. Who knew? Well, I did! And now you know, too. So there.

Mercaptan is actually a very natural substance found in the blood, brain, and other tissues of people and animals. It is released from animal feces. It occurs naturally in certain foods, such as certain nuts and cheeses. It is also one of the main chemicals responsible for bad breath, the smell of farts and that nasty hardwater shower in that Motel 6 in Youngstown.

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