AUSTIN (KXAN) — Did you smell something bad in south Austin this weekend?
If you did, you’re not the only one.
A few residents told KXAN about a foul or rotten egg smell in the air — but the Austin Fire Department says it looked into it and say they think it was the oil fields in Luling.
“While not the typical time of day for the ‘Luling Effect,’ it seems a little push of southeast wind has brought in the oil field odor,” AFD tweeted Saturday. “… multiple units out checking the area, but we believe that’s what it is.”
What is the “Luling effect”?
In the past few years, these same foul smells have been reported in and around Austin.
AFD says it happens when sulfur smells collect at the ground instead of dissipating as usual — this usually happens on particularly cold nights. Then, in the morning the wind brings up the scent and spreads it through the air.
In December 2020, AFD said it had received over 100 calls about the odor that year. If you smell the odor, however, AFD says there’s no need to call 911. But if you smell natural gas inside your home, you should call 911.
Are oil field smells harmful?
Texans aren’t the only ones who experience oil field odors — far from it.
Residents of San Juan County in southern Utah and the neighboring Navajo Nation in Arizona have complained about hydrogen sulfide (H2S) emissions from an Elk Petroleum oil field in the area. In addition to an accidental leak in August, some residents say they smell the fumes daily.
“It’s getting worse,” resident Billy Dishface told The Salt Lake Tribune. “I live in the [Elk Petroleum] lease, but people can even smell it [farther away] in the canyons. H2S is poison gas. … Now we have problems with our health — all the headaches, our bodies getting weaker and weaker.”
Residents of the Wilmington neighborhood in Los Angeles have also complained about smells coming from the six oil refineries in the area, CNBC reported in October. There, residents have said they experience persistent coughs, skin rashes and even cancers.
While it’s not been confirmed whether the Austin-area smells are H2S, the gas is commonly known to smell like rotten eggs. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) explains H2S is a colorless and extremely hazardous gas but occurs naturally in natural gas and crude petroleum.
OSHA reports the rotten egg smell can be noticed even in low concentrations. Certain chemical properties of H2S can also — with continuous low-level exposure — cause a person to quickly lose their ability to smell it even when it’s present in the air. Eye and respiratory symptoms are also common.
Exposure to higher concentrations of hydrogen sulfide can cause a variety of health problems, OSHA says. Continuous exposure to low-level concentrations can cause coma, convulsions, dizziness, headache, weakness, insomnia. Prolonged exposure to moderate levels can cause severe eye and respiratory irritation, coughing, difficulty breathing, nausea, vomiting, and staggering.
Repeated exposure to high concentrations can cause rapid unconsciousness, coma and death. These effects can happen with as little as one breath, OSHA says.