Life’s a Gas in Paris

The headline read  «Big Stink in Paris» – nothing to do with today’s teacher strike, when half the capital’s schools were closed, nor the anger of thousands of Parisians at the city authority’s failure to react to the recent cold snap. A distinct lack of council workers clearing snow gritting the Parisian thouroughfares. No, the stink was real enough – a huge cloud of gas, blowing in from a chemical plant located in the Normandy city of Rouen, a couple of hundred miles from the capital.

The gas was Mercaptan. Now I am no scientist, so, the folliowing is culled from a famous «general knowledge.» website.

Methanethiol (also known as methyl mercaptan) is a colorless gas with a smell like rotten cabbage. It is a natural substance found in the blood and brain of humans and other animals as well as plant tissues. It is disposed of through animal feces. It occurs naturally in certain foods, such as some nuts and cheese. It is also one of the main chemicals responsible for bad breath and the smell of flatus. The chemical formula for methanethiol is CH3SH; it is classified as a thiol. It is sometimes abbreviated as MeSH. It is very flammable.

Now, the aforementioned gas is also used to add a «tracer» to odourless gasses. This is the stuff (in a diluted form) that is added to our good old natural gas, so we can smell it. Hey, how many times do you accidentally leave the gas on after cooking?. And just to give you an idea of how this stuff smells in a concentrated form – well did you ever let off stink bombs as a kid.

So, here we are in Paris this morning, a huge cloud of «stink bomb» gas blowing in over the capital from the leaking chemical plant in Rouen. In the coures of a copule of hours, Paris firefighters received over 10,000 phone calls from distraught Parisians who were vomitting and breathing difficulties. Why phone the fire brigade, what are they going to do? Well, in France, the fire brigade also act as paramedics, they are equipped with ambulances. Ring 999 or 911 in France (though we dial 18 and likely as not, it will be firefighers taking you to hospital and not the ambulance service.

Anyway while there are thousands of Parisians choking and vomitting, the (almost amused) voice coming out the radio, tell us all «not to worry» because the gas is not dangerous. Very much a case of keep calm and carry on.

This is where I just love the nonchalance of the French authorities. This is the country that was unaffecetd by Chernobyl, because the radioactive cloud stopped at the France’s eastern borders No Joke. The authorities at the time told us that the fallout from Chernobyld had «skirted around France.»

A little research has revealed that this «stink bomb» gas, though not in the league of Sarin (what Russian authorities pumped into Moscow theatres to end a hostage crisis), it is still dangerous. Just to confirm the «noxious» nature, the chemical plant where the stuff was produced, has a top «Sevesso» rating.

Anyway, the Parisians can sleep easy tonight, the wind direction has changed, and the gas has blown back to Rouen and further. It has crossed the Channel and is affecting parts of southern England. So it won’t be the first time that the French have caused a stink «outre Manche».

The moral of the story – if you don’t want to be worried by anything, just move to France, because whatever the threat, it will never happen here, and if it has never happened, then you have no basis to complain when you’re suffocating under «stink bomb» gas, or dying of cancer after a radioactive cloud never blew across France.