IT IS an acrid stench that has done little to improve Britain’s strained relationship with Europe.
Nauseous residents on the south coast of England inundated police and gas firms with emergency calls yesterday after an offensive odour drifted over from the French side of the Channel.
The unsavoury smell, dubbed Le Stink or Le Pong on social networking sites, was caused by a foul-smelling cloud of gas which escaped from a factory in northern France before winds carried it north across hundreds of square miles of England.
Some residents said the whiff smelled of sweat and rotten eggs, while others compared it to stale cabbage, garlic or diesel fumes. Some panicked, thinking it was their house on fire.
In the event, the sulphurous smell, which elicited complaints from Eastbourne to Luton, was mercaptan, a gas also known as methanethiol. A naturally occurring substance used as a colourless additive in the chemicals industry and in animal feeds, it is closely related to the smell of a skunk’s spray, and plays a key part in the aromas of flatulence and halitosis.
The leak occurred on Monday morning at a Lubrizol plant near Rouen, 75 miles north-west of Paris, before winds blew the invisible gas cloud south over northern France and up into England yesterday.
The gas, which is non-toxic but flammable in high concentrations, sparked a flurry of phone calls to emergency services in France early yesterday.
The Paris police department issued a statement saying the gas posed no health risks but warned that it smelled like a mixture of “sweat, garlic and rotten eggs”. The stench even led to the postponement of a football tie between Rouen and Olympique Marseille, after locals in Rouen complained of nausea.
“We did not want to find ourselves with 10,000 fans two kilometres from the factory and with no means of evacuating them if necessary,” said local official Florence Gouache.
In England, the National Grid’s gas emergency line reported 60,000 calls by 10am, six times its normal daily total. Sussex Police said they received more than 25 calls by 9:15am; neighbouring Surrey had 15 calls by 11:30am. Kent also had calls.
Even the Metropolitan Police saw fit to reassure Londoners, tweeting: “We are aware of reports of a strong, noxious, gas-like smell in some boroughs. No risks to public.”
In Tunbridge Wells, 120 miles north of Rouen, the proprietor of a spa presumed her premises were ablaze. “I could definitely smell burning,” said Keri Bond, manager of Champneys. “We were going into every room and smelling to see if there was a fire.”
In a statement, the Health Protection Agency said: “The smell drifting over southern England poses no risk to public health. It is caused by a particularly smelly chemical added to odourless natural gas to give that its characteristic smell.
“It is not toxic and has also been diluted before entering the air over England, so people should be reassured it will cause no harm and will disperse.”
Last night, French ecology minister Delphine Batho said she was cutting short a trip to Germany to head for Rouen to oversee the clean-up operation.
Five years ago, Londoners were left clutching their stomachs after ill winds brought the stink of muck, spread by Dutch farmers, across the Channel.
l A fuel leak forced homes and businesses to be evacuated in North Ayrshire yesterday. Firefighters were called to Main Street, Beith, about 9am after reports of a strong smell of petrol from drains, powerful enough to cause nausea and headaches. The street was evacuated, with residents bussed to a community hall in nearby Kilbirnie.