The Smell of Summer

What smells remind you of summer? For some it’s hot dogs and hamburgers cooking on the grill, for others its fresh-cut grass, and for some it’s a combination of rotten eggs and sewage.

Every summer we receive calls from residents who say our sewers stink. Let’s face it. Sewers can be smelly.  We all know what’s in there, don’t we? And sometimes this reputation gives King County’s sewers a bad rap. Our crews commonly have to break the news that the summer odor you reported doesn’t come from our sewer system. The sharp-nosed investigators have found a variety of culprits, including rotting seals and a long-vacant house. But the most common cause of odor complaints in the summer is on our shores.

In 2009, the Seattle PI wrote a story about something foul lurking in Puget Sound – “great green gobs at coves and bays.” As much as we’d like to call the new team of Ghostbusters to take care of this problem, it is going to take more than that to tackle this menace. A seaweed called macro algae, commonly known as sea lettuce, is thriving in our waters, washing up on our shores, and as the temperature rises, rotting.

Rotting sea lettuce produces sulfur gases that, like aged wines, have a distinct bouquet. Hydrogen sulfide smells like rotten eggs or sewage, and dimethyl sulfide (DMS) smells like rotting shellfish. According to WA State Ecology, noxious odors from decaying sea lettuce and other seaweeds can, in some instances, be strong enough to make people feel sick. In extreme cases, it can be a significant health risk as seen in this story set on a French beach: Bad enough to kill a horse!

Is there nothing we can do about this rank invasion?  One company investigated salvaging seaweed from West Seattle for biofuel.

Even if we don’t carry Proton Packs, we can all do a little to reduce our contributions to Slimer’s diet. Pick up pet waste, maintain your property’s sewer pipes, and rethink adding fertilizer to green up your lawn. All three help sea lettuce bloom and can stink up the town.

So when you smell something in your neighborhood, who you gonna call? If you call King County, we’ll ask you some questions and send a team out to investigate. If you see great green gobs, it’s up to you whether you call the Ghostbusters, but it may be a good idea.

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