Chatham Emergency Services Update

By Carey Ruppert - cruppert@chathames.org
Chief, Skidaway Division

What’s That Funny Smell?

On a fairly routine basis, we are called by Landings residents who have noticed a “funny smell” while outside and are concerned there might be a gas leak. These residents appropriately took action in reporting a potentially hazardous situation, and we responded accordingly. In some cases, there was, in fact, natural gas present. In other cases, it was determined that the smell originated from other sources. This article is intended to provide information that might help residents determine a possible source for gas-like odors and to help them evaluate the seriousness of the situation.

Upon receipt of a call reporting the smell of gas outdoors, we search the area using a gas meter and our sense of smell. If natural gas is detected, we try to localize the source. Sometimes the source is blindingly obvious, such as when a pipe has been damaged by either a homeowner or contractor digging. Other times, we can localize the source to a leak in the connections around a gas meter. The good news is that natural gas is lighter than air, so when released outdoors, it rises and dissipates quickly. As a result of this rapid dissipation, natural gas generally provides a minimal hazard unless in very high concentration. FYI, the gas company repairs any leak up to and including your gas meter. Any leak between the gas meter and your home will need to be repaired by a certified plumber.

When responding to your call, if we cannot locate natural gas, we start looking for other possible sources for the smell. We encounter several sources on the island on a routine basis, including swamp gas, sewer gas, and landscape chemicals used on yards and golf courses.

Swamp or wetland gasses are naturally occurring methane and hydrogen sulfide produced by the decomposition of plant and animal matter in saltwater marshes. This gas has the same “rotten egg” smell of natural gas containing mercaptan and is especially noticeable during low tide and cool temperatures. If you are out walking your dog in the early morning or late evening near the marsh, the funny gas smell is likely coming from the nearby marsh. Like swamp gas, sewer gas is naturally occurring methane gas produced by the breakdown of organic compounds in sewer lines. On the island, residents are likely to encounter a sewer gas smell near a sewage pumping station or near the spray fields in the Marshwood and Deer Creek areas.

Finally, we often receive calls after yard services have applied chemicals to grass or shrubbery surrounding a residence. So if you go outside your home and notice a smell, check to see if your lawn or your neighbor’s lawn has been treated recently. There are also certain chemicals applied by golf-course maintenance crews that produce a smell very similar to natural gas. A quick check with the Pro Shop might determine if a nearby course has been chemically treated.

The bottom line: Although a better safe than sorry call is always in order, if you are outside and smell a funny smell, a quick inventory of your surroundings might make that call unnecessary or at least less urgent.