Foul smell complaints in southern England after gas leak

Media caption,
People across the South East are puzzled by a foul smell after a massive gas leak in France.

A cloud of foul-smelling but harmless gas has leaked out of a factory in north-west France, prompting complaints from Paris to southern England.

The leak is blamed on a chemical factory near Rouen. Many residents compared the odour to diesel fumes or rotten eggs.

Police, health officials and the gas emergency line in England received thousands of calls from worried people.

The gas is mercaptan, added to natural gas to give it a smell.

It enables people to detect leaks of normally odourless natural gas.

The chemical escaped from the factory 75 miles (120km) north-west of Paris on Monday.

Gas emergency line

Winds blew the cloud over northern France on Monday night and then into England.

Police in Kent and Sussex said they received calls early on Tuesday.

Then the UK's Health Protection Agency (HPA) and police said reports had started coming in from Surrey.

London Fire Brigade started receiving calls by Tuesday afternoon and later complaints also came from residents in Hampshire, Dorset, Oxfordshire, Northampton and the East Midlands.

The National Grid, which would normally deal with up to 10,000 calls a day to its gas emergency phone line, had received more than 100,000 calls by 14:00 GMT.

A spokesman said it was an "unprecedented" volume.

Media caption,
French resident: 'I thought it might be something in my flat...but I couldn't find anything'

Kent Fire and Rescue Service advised residents to keep doors and windows closed if they had concerns, or were elderly or asthmatic.

But area commander Martin Adams said there were no serious concerns and he urged people not to call the fire service.

'Unpleasant aroma'

One resident in Cheriton, east Kent, said there had been reports of a strong smell in Ashford, Lydd and Hythe.

Tania Bartlett told the BBC that people "all over Facebook" were talking about it.

Canterbury resident Andrew Roberts said: "Just stuck my head out of the back door here in south Canterbury - strong smell of fuel oil in the air."

Sussex Police said it had been receiving reports of a gas smell along the East Sussex coast.

The force said Kent Police had also received a larger number of calls.

In a statement, a Sussex Police spokesman said: "We understand that this smell emanates from an accidental factory discharge in Rouen.

"The smell is from an additive to the gas which has an unpleasant aroma but is not toxic and there is no danger to the public."

'Rotten eggs'

The HPA said in a statement: "The smell drifting over southern England today poses no risk to public health.

"The odour, which is similar to rotten eggs, has been noticed by people mainly in Kent, East and West Sussex and some parts of Surrey."

It said the non-toxic chemical which had blown across the Channel would also have been diluted before entering the air over England.

In France, Tuesday evening's football match between Rouen and Marseille has been postponed because of the smell.

Staff at the factory, run by a French subsidiary of the US chemicals manufacturer Lubrizol, are working to stop the leak.

Southern Gas Network said it had spoken to the company on Tuesday afternoon.

"They've told us the work on fixing the leak starts this evening and they're hoping to have fixed it by tomorrow morning," said a spokeswoman.

"As to how soon the smell dissipates it hard to say."

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