Residents want answers on onion smell

Mon, 07/17/2006 - 10:48am
By: The Citizen

The onion-like smell of pesticide component Propyl mercaptan coming from the Philip Services Corporation (PSC) waste treatment plant on Ga. Highway 92 just inside Fulton County is not dissipating. Present for weeks and still very evident in the air, the effects of the odor has sickened more than 100 residents in North Fayette and South Fulton counties. The smell has sporadically covered an estimated 200 square miles over a large area of Fayette and portions of south Fulton, Coweta and Clayton counties during the past few weeks. Though permitted by Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) to handle such industrial waste, the 20 loads of chemical that arrived at the plant between June 21-29 has and is causing a problem, neighbors say. And residents close to the plant in both counties are tired of being ill. They want answers. They want the smell to stop. Yet results from follow-up tests conducted at the plant July 14 showed no detection of Propyl mercaptan at levels that would be considered a health risk.

Residents of north Fayette and South Fulton who were affected by the sickening smell are in no mood for excuses and patronization or being ignored. More than 300 arrived Monday at Bethany United Methodist Church on Lee’s Lake Road to exchange information and sign a petition demanding action. Many of those reported ill effects that curiously coincide with the smell of onions, the very smell caused by Propyl mercaptan. The customary lines that separate counties have been obliterated with the effects of the chemical. A random sampling taken at the impromptu petition location revealed north Fayette and south Fulton residents reporting symptoms that include, nausea, vomiting, headaches, breathing difficulty, burning eyes, pneumonia, scratchy throat, skin irritation, dizziness, diarrhea and increased asthma attacks. Most did not go the a hospital or their own doctors. Most did not make the connection until speaking with others manifesting similar symptoms.

The human side

Indicative of the seriousness of this obvious public health incident affecting a bare minimum of 100 people randomly sampled during the past few days is that of Milam Manor II homeowner Lina Pitts, who lives 200-300 yards southwest of the PSC plant. She and her children have experienced headaches and nausea since the odor began. But for Pitts, the situation is far worse. She moved into her home a year ago and was diagnosed with pleurisy six months ago. Though the condition cleared up, it returned during the first days of July, just weeks after she was diagnosed for the first time in her life with asthma. During a trip to a local healthcare facility a few weeks ago she was told she could be having a reaction from exposure to chemicals.

“I told them I don’t work around chemicals,” Pitts said.

Pitts one year-old miniature Maltese began vomiting, scratching itself and experiencing diarrhea after the smell of onions began. The little dog died.

A short distance away, Lee’s Lake Road resident Connie Biemiller is one of many in north Fayette and south Fulton who have been subject to the sporadic but unrelenting odor. It was Biemiller who initiated the petition drive after she and her family experienced intermittent but increased allergy symptoms in past weeks. Passing out petition information at Bethany United Methodist Monday afternoon, Biemiller said taking such action was necessary to fully alert public officials to the continued seriousness of the situation.

“We’re doing this to raise awareness. We’re smelling a toxic chemical and we demand that our elected officials do something about it. Environmental officials checked the plant and gave it the okay, but we’re still sick,” Biemiller said. “We can’t enjoy being in our yards, even though we have a human right to do that.”

More than 300 hundred of Biemiller’s neighbors in north Fayette and south Fulton signed the petition Monday evening. And the list is growing. The petition read:

“WE PETITION OUR GOVERNMENT LEADERS TO PROTECT THE CITIZENS OF SOUTH FULTON AND FAYETTE COUNTIES FROM TOXIC ODORS: We request that toxic odors throughout these counties cease immediately so that no citizen shall suffer physically, mentally or emotionally another day. We demand that these chemicals be purged from the Waste Water Site on Spence Road and that a thorough inspection of our streams and soil content be conducted. We also demand a public meeting held to inform the citizens within 15 days of this petition.”

Just inside Fulton County, a group of 75 residents from Fayette and Fulton met July 10 in the driveway of Pitts’ home off Milam Road to discuss the issues and meet with an attorney. The smell of onions strong in the air, some covered their mouths and noses as attorney Scott Zahler asked about their concerns and fielded questions.

“These people have been exposed to something toxic,” Zahler said after the meeting. “Given the timetable of events, our opinion is that it was exposure to mercaptan and we’re going to look into it.”

It was curious that the strong odor, while so evident standing on the driveway that day, could not be detected behind Pitts’ house some 10-20 feet lower in elevation. This defies the explanation offered by environmental officials who say that Propyl mercaptan, being heavier than air, tends to settle to lower lying areas in the absence of significant wind. There was not even the slightest breeze blowing as neighbors met.

Living next door to the plant on Hwy. 92, Tanya Coleman has experienced exploding headaches and nosebleed, she said Monday at the petition site. The continuous effects of the onion smell have not been limited to Coleman and her family. The family’s puppy became very ill after the smell began, she said, with symptoms that included bleeding from the nose and rectum, bloodshot eyes, failure to eat and accompanying weight loss. Her vet explained the puppy had come in contact with a toxic substance, advising her to monitor the puppy’s activities closely. Coleman is one of several area residents, including Biemiller, who have said that their dogs and cats have acted strangely in the past few weeks, some of them refusing to go into the yard. And like Coleman, who went on vacation June 15 and could smell the same odor prior to leaving, more than a dozen residents of both counties say the onion smell was present prior to the first reported shipment of Propyl mercaptan received at PSC on June 21. The unmistakable, strong smell of onions is still present. Coleman awoke at 1:30 AM on July 11, her throat closing in on her from the smell. About 200 yards north of her home, neighbor George Nicholson was awakened at the same time by the stifling odor.

The history of the mystery

Though the heavy onion smell was widely reported June 29 and on subsequent days in Fayette and south Fulton, residents in the affected area had been smelling it for weeks. Those smells were Propyl mercaptan, a component ingredient of a pesticide produced by a Bayer facility in Alabama. Emergency management officials from Fayette and Fulton, EPD and federal Environmental Protection Agency arrived at the PSC facility July 3 in response to complaints in both counties. And though disgusting at least and sickening at worst, EPD Emergency Response Team Program Manager Gary Andrews said July 5 that representatives of his agency and EPA conducted tests at the site July 3. Those tests revealed no measurable presence of Propyl mercaptan even though some investigators on the site could smell the chemical, Andrews said. EPD returned to the PSC plant July 14 to conduct further tests. Andrews said the multiple air samples taken did not register at the level considered to pose a health threat. That level for inhalation exposure is one-half part per million, a much larger level than the 600 parts per trillion that humans are able to detect as an onion-like odor.

Fulton County Emergency Management Agency Duty Officer William Smith said that PSC received shipments of wash water containing a small fraction of Propyl mercaptan beginning June 21. Wash water is produced after the container holding the chemical is empty and the container is washed with water. Containers of wash water were then shipped to PSC for treatment. From June 21 through June 29, the plant received 20 shipments from a Bayer manufacturing plant in Alabama, Smith said. The first 16 shipments were accepted and treated at the PSC facility. The final four shipments, all arriving June 29, were determined by plant operators to be unacceptable. The first container arriving June 29 had been transferred to a PSC tank when the determination was made. The Propyl mercaptan was put back on the truck for return shipment to Alabama. When the other three shipments arrived later in the day, the dome lids were opened and samples taken. All three of those tanks were refused and returned to Bayer. The only known way the chemical could have entered the environment was during those brief occasions were the transfer of one tank was made and the lid on three others was lifted during sampling, Smith and Andrews said. The 16 shipments that arrived between June 21-28, however, were processed throughout the plants wastewater treatment system, Andrews said. That system, he said, is completely self-contained with runoff on plant property being cycled back into the treatment system.

Contacted July 5, PSC General Manager David Chunn said the company has no comment at this time, adding that a statement will be submitted in writing at an unspecified future date.

Andrews said PSC is permitted by EPD to treat solid waste. Though wash water such as that containing Propyl mercaptan came to the facility as a liquid, it and other chemically laden wash water shipments are eventually rendered into a small quantity of solid product during the treatment process. The final solid waste product is transferred to another facility permitted to handle such waste while the final wastewater generated through the treatment process at PSC is deposited into the Fulton County sewer system. PSC is also permitted by Fulton County as a pre-treatment facility. In addition, the plant provides a notification, with no permit required, to transport hazardous waste that can be stored on site for up to 10 days, Andrews said. PSC was cited June 23 with a violation and a $3,500 penalty after EPD staff conducting a routine inspection discovered that a drum of hazardous waste had been stored at the Spence Road plant for 17 days. The drum of hazardous waste had no apparent connection with Propyl mercaptan.

Smith and Andrews said the onion odor should dissipate with time, though it is unknown when that time might be. And though extremely unpleasant and sickening to many, the chemical make-up of Propyl mercaptan itself is partly responsible for the lingering odor. Being heavier than air and not easily broken by sunlight, the chemical tends to hover at ground level, especially in low-lying, shaded areas and creek beds, areas that are usually cooler and damper than open, sunlit areas, Andrews said. Another factor contributing to its prolonged presence are the hot and humid days the area has seen in the recent past, said Smith.

The onion-like odor has been detected by residents in portions of Fairburn, the Union City area, unincorporated southeast Fulton, north Fayette, the Tyrone area throughout much of the central Fayette area and down to Peachtree City, in Sharpsburg, at I-85 in Newnan and at Hartsfield Airport and Clayton County. The reason for such a large coverage area in Fayette was initially attributed to the north-south the prevailing winds experienced during much of last week. Yet that does not explain why such an apparently small amount of Propyl mercaptan vapor could linger so obviously over an area currently estimated at 200 square miles. Nor does it explain why the obvious presence of the chemical can be detected at higher elevations, yet areas 15-20 feet downhill from the same area give no hint of the odor, as was the case at Pitts’ home earlier this week.

The foul smelling Propyl mercaptan is chemically similar to Tertiary Butyl mercaptan (TBM), used as a odorant in natural gas. Information on Propyl mercaptan provided in the Materials Safety Data Sheet states that the strong, objectionable odor may cause nausea, dizziness or headache but is not expected to be harmful if inhaled in small quantities. Propyl mercaptan is a moderately toxic, colorless liquid with a strong, offensive odor that floats on water, according to CAMEO (Computer-Aided Management of Emergency Operations). It is a chemical intermediate and herbicide and was used as a component of the pesticide MOCAP, produced at Bayer’s Alabama facility.

login to post comments