Gas from swamp near school sickens neighbors

  • By Sarah Koenig Enterprise reporter
  • Tuesday, January 6, 2009 9:51am

Who to contact

For questions or concerns about air quality, city officials are asking residents to contact the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency at 1-800-552-3565, extension 6 or see

More than two weeks ago, neighbors near Jackson High School noticed a rotten egg smell coming from the swamp in the Sullivan Wetland.

Some soon found themselves sick.

The smell has lingered for weeks, and it hasn’t been determined how safe it is. It’s also unsure if, when or by whom the air in the area will be tested.

“I had really bad headaches and dizziness, I thought I had sinus infection or something, and just kept getting sicker,” said Dani Nelson, who lives nears the high school.

The wetland is just north of the school off 136th Street Southeast, and the swamp runs behind her property.

Nelson also had burning eyes and a scratchy throat.

About five or six of Nelson’s neighbors have had bad headaches, nausea, dizziness and vomiting, and her children have had headaches since the smell started, she said.

The city of Mill Creek first got complaints from residents about the smell Dec. 22, said Marci Chew, surface water technician with the city.

The smell has been noted all the way from 136th and 138th Streets Southeast to Dumas Road and down to Trillium Boulevard Southeast, the street that Heatherwood Middle School sits on.

Some residents complained of feeling sick and others weren’t affected, Chew said.

The sewage-like smell was strongest in the swamp. Chew and other staff tested the soil and water there and determined the swamp was emitting hydrogen sulfide, a gas caused by decomposition. The dry weather followed by snow likely caused it, Chew said.

She recommends avoiding the gas.

“But it’s hard to do when basically you live next to it and it’s coming into your house,” she said.

Tests were done at Jackson High School this past weekend by Everett School District maintenance staff.

They tested the air in and around the building and found nothing, said Mary Waggoner, spokesperson for the district.

“There’s no smell, no toxins, no particles in the air,” she said.

School resumed Monday, Jan. 5. If students complained of symptoms, the problem would be investigated, Waggoner said.

Even so, Nelson, whose children attend Jackson High School, was a little worried about students spending all day in the building.

“I was worried because some of the kids have more respiratory issues,” she said. “(But) I think the school district has done all they know how to do and can do.”

Principal Terry Cheshire didn’t return a call from the Enterprise Monday.

As for further tests, it’s not in the city of Mill Creek’s jurisdiction to test air, so Chew asked the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency to do tests.

At the Enterprise deadline Monday, Jan. 5, she hadn’t gotten a definitive response from them on that.

Amy Warren, communications specialist for the Puget Sound Clean Air Agency, said she wasn’t aware of the Mill Creek situation. But she said that the agency wouldn’t send people to test in this case because it’s in the jurisdiction of the Washington State Department of Ecology.

Staff at that office couldn’t be reached by the Enterprise deadline.

In the meantime, Nelson and her family have tried to be out of the house as much as possible to limit exposure. She and others will have to wait for the smell to go away.

“There is little that can be done to eliminate the smell until the wetland changes and more water gets into the system,” Chew said.

Exposure to low concentrations of hydrogen sulfide may irritate the eyes, nose or throat, according to the Agency for Toxic Substances and Disease Registry, an office of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. It may also cause breathing problems for asthmatics.

Brief exposures to high concentrations (over 500 parts per million) can cause a loss of consciousness and possibly death, as well as permanent or long-term effects such as headaches, poor attention span, poor memory and poor motor function, according to the agency’s Web site.

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