‘The stench of death’: California city plagued by extraordinary odor for weeks
Carson residents say they’re unwell as canal’s decomposing vegetation sends off plumes of hydrogen sulfide gas
Lakesia Livingstone was driving back to her home in Carson, California, in early October after watching her son play football when she was hit with an overpowering stench. “It was like a rotten egg smell, horrible, very strong,” Livingstone says. “I thought, oh my God, something is going on.”
That smell has now lasted four weeks, creating chaos for residents of Carson, a city in Los Angeles county. The extraordinary stink – which has been described as “the stench of death” – is coming from a nearby canal where authorities say decomposing vegetation is sending off plumes of hydrogen sulfide gas.
The Carson city council has declared a local state of emergency, but frustrated residents say it’s taking too long to fix a problem that’s more than a nuisance – it’s making them physically unwell.
“It’s not just an odor. An odor does not make you physically sick, with headaches, respiratory problems, and rashes,” says Ana Meni, a lifetime Carson resident who worked for the city for 25 years.
Livingstone has also experienced health problems. When she’d take walks in the evening, which she does to combat high blood pressure, she experienced pounding headaches, fatigue and nausea. She would lose her appetite and sleep for 10 hours straight. Her symptoms got so bad that she went to her doctor for anti-nausea medication. The doctor told her: “You’re going to have to get out of there if you’re feeling so badly.”
The county is working to fix the problem, and says the gas levels are starting to decline. They are aerating the canal, known as the Dominguez Channel, injecting oxygen into the water and spraying deodorizer on the canal to reduce the stench.
So far, the city of Carson, along with LA county, has relocated more than 1,300 residents, including Meni and Livingstone, to hotel rooms. Hundreds more have left the area on their own dime, Meni says.
She says it took her a few days after leaving Carson to realize how groggy she had been, running fans all the time to try and keep the smell out of her home. “My voice is a little froggy, I have my throat tightening up, even now. I don’t have medical coverage, my breathing isn’t normal,” she says.
Meni is running for city clerk, and the election is next Tuesday, but she has been focusing on meeting with displaced residents and organizing through a Facebook page that now has 3,300 members. Residents in the group have likened the smell to “the stench of death” and “The Walking Dead”.
“The way this is going, we are not getting clear answers other than they are bringing the smell down,” she says. “I could be sitting next to a toxic dump, and if you Febreeze it to death, you take the smell away, but it’s still toxic.”
Cleanup efforts under way
County officials say they were first notified of a foul odor coming from the Dominguez Channel, a 15.7-mile-long (25.2km-long) river that catches storm drains and empties into the Port of Los Angeles, on 7 October. A team discovered decomposing material in the canal and activated an emergency management team.
“Our water sampling tells us our efforts are working,” Mark Pestrella, the director of Los Angeles county public works told a virtual town hall on Wednesday night. “So we are ramping up and making good progress at and seeing a downtrend in the sulfur hydrogen sulfide that’s creating this odor.”
However, it’s still not entirely certain what is causing the persistent stench. Inspectors are looking into the possibility that an earthquake in mid-September shook something loose from a refinery or other industrial plant in the area.
Meni was angry to hear city officials blaming the smell on nature alone. “We call BS on that,” she says. “I have lived here 42 years, and everyone says: ‘We have never experienced this.’ Please do not say it’s nature. That cannot be.”
Hydrogen sulfide, also known as sewer gas, is a colorless gas known for its pungent odor at low concentrations. It is extremely flammable and highly toxic, but Muntu David, an LA county health officer who spoke at Wednesday’s town hall, assured residents that the levels people are breathing are too low to cause permanent damage.
He added that the Environmental Protection Agency determined that you would need to be exposed to about 27,000 parts per billion (ppb) for an hour straight, or 17,000 ppb for eight hours straight, to be at risk for permanent or irreversible ill health effects.
“Although some outdoor one-hour average readings in the air occasionally reached as high as 7,000 ppb, these levels have been transient and fleeting and occurred mostly at night,” he said. “During the day, outdoor readings have consistently come down and lately have been hovering in the 1,000 ppb or less range, which most people can easily smell.”
‘Why are we still getting sick?’
But residents are still worried and frustrated. Last week, the Los Angeles county department of public health recommended that residents avoid prolonged outdoor activities between the hours of 9pm and 8am and reduce exposure whenever odors are strong. Schools in the area were told to have discretion when considering outdoor activities, and residents have been told to keep their pets indoors.
Carson is home to predominantly people of color, and residents feel like the response to their crisis hasn’t been as rapid as to other environmental issues in the area, such as the recent oil spill in Huntington Beach, an upscale beach community. “I follow the Huntington Beach spill because I hike there sometimes,” says Livingstone. “That was cleared up in a matter of a week and a half. But that channel is not as big as the beach. So why haven’t we received the resources we need?”
Asked about residents’ complaints that resources aren’t being fairly distributed, Kerjon Lee, a communications manager from the Los Angeles county public works department, says the response efforts have come from multiple agencies and began immediately after the smell was first reported.
“We are focused on the bacteria that’s digesting the organic material that’s within the channel,” Lee says.
Meni says that areas where people of color live tend to have minimal or no environmental policies in place. The lack of transparency and accountability has left her with more questions than answers. “They are telling us one thing, that the levels are low, but our bodies say something else. Why are we still getting sick?”
She’d like to be able to go home to Carson, but she says she’ll wait until the headaches stop. “It’s really scary, and we don’t know how long it will be.”