As a metaphor made literal it was almost too good to be true: A day before British Prime Minister David Cameron’s much-heralded speech on his worries about the EU, an offensive stink drifted across from continental Europe, putting Britons off their breakfast.
The reality was more prosaic. The odor, variously described as cabbage, rotten eggs or diesel, came from a leak of a harmless — if undeniably smelly — gas at a chemical works in Rouen, France. After much nose-holding and occasional reports of nausea and headaches around Rouen and Paris, more than 100km away, the cloud was blown across the channel into Kent and Sussex, and then to the southeast of London.
Its arrival on British shores brought a flurry of calls to local police and the National Grid’s gas emergency line, with the latter reporting 60,000 calls by 10am on Tuesday, as against a normal daily total of 10,000. Official reassurance often came via Facebook and Twitter, with Hastings police using the #noneedtopanic hashtag.
Alarm was, inevitably, replaced on social media by a welter of flatulence jokes and jibes at neighboring towns accused of always smelling that way. Before too long the semi-official term “Le Pong” emerged, seemingly coined by a Portsmouth newspaper.
The gas was mercaptan, also known as methanethiol, a naturally occurring substance used as an additive in the chemicals industry and in animal feeds. Testament to its odor is that the substance is not only closely related to the smell in a skunk’s spray, but plays a key part in the aromas of halitosis and flatulence.
It began leaking on Monday morning from the Lubrizol plant in Rouen, a company belonging to the US business magnate Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway empire. As the cloud drifted to Paris, the fire service and Interior Ministry had to ask people to stop ringing clogged emergency phone numbers. Paris police had their own take on the smell, describing it vividly as a combination of “sweat, garlic and rotten eggs.”
Overnight the gas drifted across the Channel, bringing as much confusion as outright panic.
“I could definitely smell burning. We thought something must be on fire,” Keri Bond, manager of the Champneys spa in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, told the BBC. “We were going into every room and smelling it to see if there was a fire. It smelled like burning or as if the air conditioning system had broken down.”