By Alex Distefano
That awful stench of rotten eggs permeating the air a few weeks ago was not your olfactory imagination. It wasn’t a problem with sewage pipes, issues at a landfill or an apocalyptic case of flatulence either. As everyone now knows—local experts at the South Coast Air Quality Management District (AQMD) confirmed for us—the culprit behind this at first mysterious stench was the Salton Sea.
But will the stink come back? Is it dangerous? Or just stinky? We went to an expert.
According to Sam Atwood, an AQMD spokesman, the stinky culprit was hydrogen sulfide, released into the air from the lake, which lies on the San Andreas Fault. The gas occurs naturally wherever organic material is allowed to decay, and has a very pervasive odor that is often described as rotten eggs. In water it can be much worse. According to Atwood, scientists think that strong winds pushed down surface waters in the sea, and pushed up water from the shallow part—which is full of decaying and organisms and bacteria.
The foul odor made its way all across the Inland Empire and beyond; traveling to Ventura, Orange, Los Angeles and Imperial counties. You’re welcome, L.A. From Sept. 9 to 11, AQMD, received about 235 odor complaints, according to Atwood. He described the stench as “unprecedented” to the Los Angles Times.
But Atwood said the odor poses absolutely no threat to human health.
“Of course, foul odors like this can cause some people nausea so you have to be careful, but there shouldn’t be ay concern from a health stand point,” he tells the Weekly. “The odor was strong across nearly a few hundred miles long all across Southern California, but our testing revealed the levels were below the state quality standards.”
The testing that Atwood referred to was part of an on-site analysis of various areas surrounding the Salton Sea where air samples are taken. This is what allowed experts to pinpoint the likeliest origin of the stink.
AQMD technicians took air samples in Riverside and San Bernardino counties on Sept. 10. Field inspectors also conducted specialized odor tests in the Coachella Valley and Indio area.
According to the AQMD, the overall analysis of samples “showed a clear progression of hydrogen sulfide levels, with the highest concentrations found at the Salton Sea and decreasing concentrations found as the distance increased from the sea. Progression, or gradient, points to the Salton Sea as the source of the odor,” the agency reported via a press release.
Odor complaints ceased on Sept. 11. But Atwood said local residents can still report foul or suspicious odors 24 hours a day by called 1 (800) CUT-SMOG.
“In terms of the Salton Sea, it is a bigger problem beyond just the scope of this one incident involving foul odor,” Atwood says. “In my opinion, it is conceivable that more odors like this might continue, but hopefully not to this degree.”