“Ooh, Ooh, That Smell!”

“The smell of death surrounds you.”
(Photo from Los Angeles Times)

If you are a fan of the rock band Lynyrd Skynyrd, you will recognize the title for today’s blog and the caption for today’s photo.  However, Skynyrd was not referring to the same smell that we are today.  MOST of southern California was subjected to a foul smell for many hours over the weekend.  And we really couldn’t characterize the odor, other than to rate it as bad.  It took quite some time for folks to figure it out, after numerous calls to emergency services outfits and the South Coast Air Quality Management District.  The following article from today’s Los Angeles Times provides the best explanation we’ve come across.  See:

http://www.latimes.com/news/local/la-me-smell-20120912,0,6667164.story

Oddly, the source of the foul stench was fish — at least in part.  The main odorant identified was hydrogen sulfide.  And hydrogen sulfide is a gas you should definitely know something about if you work in water distribution — especially if you’re taking the exam this Saturday.

Hydrogen sulfide has the chemical formula of H2S.  It is a gas at room temperature, and is more dense than air.  This means that it can easily accumulate in trenches and below-grade structures.  It has a characteristic rotten-egg odor.  However, it also can deaden the sense of smell after exposure for a few minutes.  That’s a problem because it is highly toxic.  Since it is also an invisible gas, once we can no longer smell it, it becomes even more deadly, as we have no means of detecting its presence.

This means that automated gas monitors are required around hydrogen sulfide, and a self-contained breathing apparatus is the only reliable means of personal protection.

We would be shocked if you didn’t get a hydrogen sulfide question or two on Saturday, so perhaps we owe a debt of gratitude to the Salton Sea for their pungent reminder of this topic.

And we hope “that smell” on Saturday won’t be generated by your performance on the exam!

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