Paramedics called to Wash. schools; gas smell sickens 79
By Stacey Mulick
The News Tribune (Tacoma, Washington)
Copyright 2006 The News Tribune
All Rights Reserved
The smell of natural gas sickened 79 students and staff members at Bethel Junior and senior high schools Thursday morning, but none seriously.
One boy was taken to a Puyallup-area hospital at his request, while the others were looked at by paramedics at the schools, said Central Pierce Fire & Rescue spokesman Matt Holm. No one was sickened at a nearby elementary school.
Officials say the pungent smell came from the nearby Williams Northwest Pipeline, which runs parallel to the neighboring schools on 38th Avenue East.
Crews were depressurizing the pipeline when methyl mercaptan — the chemical used to give natural gas its bad smell — was released into the air, officials said.
The low cloud cover and wind gusts carried the chemical over the schools, where students and staff members started feeling sick shortly after 9 a.m.
"It's an unfortunate weather day where the smell was a little more apparent than it would have been," said Michele Swaner, a spokeswoman for Williams Northwest Pipeline. "Unfortunately, we can't control the weather."
Fire crews tested the air and found no presence of natural gas, which is colorless and odorless. They did find methyl mercaptan, which is added to natural gas as a warning device. The substance, also known as methanethiol, has no known adverse health effects, except in extremely high concentrations.
"The pumping station was just upwind of where this took place," Holm said.
Seventy-eight students and staff members at the junior high school were examined by paramedics for respiratory symptoms, watery eyes and queasiness, while one student at the high school reported sickness.
"All their vitals were fine," Holm said.
After discovering the problem, officials shut down the heating and cooling systems at the schools so the odor did not continue to come into the buildings.
Classes continued as the affected students and staff members were evaluated. Students were either released to their parents or returned to classes, Holm said.
Once the odor had cleared from the outside air, fire and school officials reactivated the heating and air-conditioning system.
Williams Northwest Pipeline is nearly done with a replacement project on its 268-mile line between Sumas, Whatcom County, and Washougal, Clark County. The 26-inch pipe is being replaced with a 36-inch pipe.