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Here's why natural gas smells like rotten eggs

Since natural gas is colorless, odorless, and tasteless, natural gas companies add mercaptan to natural gas. Why? Because of a 1937 tragedy in east Texas.

NEW LONDON, Texas — There’s a good chance you have natural gas in your home: whether it’s in your stove, fireplace, or heating system. Natural gas – when under control – is completely harmless.

But, because natural gas is colorless, odorless and tasteless, natural gas companies add mercaptan to natural gas. Mercaptan is what gives natural gas its distinct and unpleasant odor – often described like rotten eggs – which helps detect leaks.

So, what caused gas companies to add this distinct smell to natural gas? It’s a direct result of a tragedy that happened in east Texas 84 years ago.

There was a newly built school filled with 5th through 12th graders in New London, near Tyler.

To provide heat in winter, school officials saved taxpayers $300 each month by piping in natural gas from the oil fields. But, there was a leak. And it went undetected.

On March 18, 1937, the school building exploded. Reports said someone in the basement woodworking shop switched off an electric tool. The spark did the rest.

Almost 300 people died. Most of the victims were children.

This led to changes in the legislature. Texas law mandates that malodorants be added to all natural gas for commercial and industrial use, a practice that is now an industry standard.

So, if you notice that distinct rotten egg smell…what should you do?

  • Don’t turn anything on, including light switches. 
  • Evacuate the structure immediately and call 911. 
  • And, after you’ve gotten to a safe place, give your gas company a call.

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