Dear Home-Ec 101,
I followed all of the advice in your how to deal with stubborn body odor in laundry article and my clothes still stink. There’s sort of a rotten egg odor and nothing I do gets rid of it.
How do I get rid of this sulfur smell in my laundry?
Sick of the Stink in Stinesville
Did you know that scent is one of the most powerful memory triggers? When I was a little girl, I went to Girl Scout Camp (Camp Loco for you South Carolinians) and they had a serious sulfur issue in the groundwater. It was so bad that neither Kool-Aid nor sweet tea could cover that eggy taste. It’s been –well, we won’t say how many years– a long time and the slightest whiff of sulfur takes me to that hot, sweaty summer.
Sulfur odor in well water has two potential sources and it takes a little bit of household detective work to determine which is the likely culprit. In both cases, Hydrogen Sulfide is the offending chemical, but how it gets into your water determines the solution to removing the offensive odor.
1. Sulphate reducing bacteria: H2S is often the result of bacteria doing their bacterial thing and processing organic matter into waste.
2. Hydrogen sulfide gas: If your well is in shale or sandstone hydrogen sulfide gas dissolved in the water itself is possible. You may notice other symptoms of this issue around your house – corrosion of your pipes and silverware that quickly turns black for example.
Unfortunately this sulfur compound, as you have noticed, can build up on your clothing. In order to solve this issue you’ll need to address the actual cause or you’ll quickly understand the plight of Sisyphus. I contacted the reader and asked if the smell was present in only the hot water or in the cold water, too. In her case, the odor is found in both, which was a little disheartening as this hot water only has the simplest fix.
If sulphate reducing bacteria has colonized only the water heater, it is possible to kill it by raising the temperature of your water to more than 140°F for 48 hours.
If you choose to attempt this fix, please be careful if you have an elderly relative or young child in the home. Water over 140°F can cause scalding and extra care should be taken.
If the odor returns, bacteria is likely colonizing the magnesium and aluminum anode rod in the water heater. You can try replacing it with an aluminum-zinc rod -go ahead and flush your water heater at this time. If you also utilize a water softener in your home, you’ll find that this tactic likely won’t be effective. The salts that condition the water negate the effect of using zinc instead. Isn’t chemistry fun?
Call your county extension office and ask if hydrogen sulphide gas is an issue for groundwater in your area. If indeed this is the case, you should consider treating the water before it comes into your home. Unfortunately there isn’t a simple solution and requires either aeration or chlorination of the water at a point between the well and your home. The option you choose depends on your budget and longterm plans.
If hydrogen sulfide gas is not of local concern, again it’s probably sulphate reducing bacteria, only this time it has colonized your well and pipes rather than just the water heater.
Thankfully sulphate reducing bacteria in your well can be treated with household bleach. Here is a guide that gives step-by-step instructions to determine how much bleach is needed based on the depth and size of your well and how to shock the well and your pipes.
Before starting, know that you will not be able to use your water supply for 12 – 24 hours and you should plan accordingly. Remember this includes flushing the toilets! If you choose to remain in the home during the time of the shock you can use buckets of water filled before the shock to flush your toilet. If you are also on a septic system you must use care when flushing the bleach from your pipes, you don’t want to overwhelm your septic tank. Too much chlorinated water can kill off the good bacteria in your septic system and cause it to not process the waste. Collect the shocked water in buckets and dispose of it anywhere but down the drain.
If the sulfur smell begins to return shortly after shocking your well, it is definitely time to have your well inspected. Bacteria may be entering your well through cracks or your well may need to be moved to a better location.
Once you eliminate the hydrogen sulfide from your water source normal laundering will remove the rotten egg smell from your clothing. It may take a couple of washes to completely eliminate the odor, but you’ll get there.
I’m sorry there wasn’t a just use vinegar or borax style answer to the problem.
Best of luck!
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- The University of Georgia Cooperative Extension
- Government of New Brunswick Fact Sheet
- Culligan – How to Treat Sulfur Water