My senior year in college, I sublet a room in an off-campus house with some friends. This house, like every other house I’ve lived in, used gas to heat the stove and water heater.
One icy day in mid January, my infinitely lovely and practical roommate M. and I were alone in the downstairs apartment, working on homework. Our concentration, however, was broken by an unusual smell wafting through our study session. We realize, oh shoot, we’ve got a gas leak!
I run through the house throwing open windows and doors as M. calls the 1-800 number for the gas company. “Whatever you do,” they tell us, “get out of the house. We’re sending someone right over.”
We sit on the porch in out sweatshirts. Our textbooks remain in the house: who could study in a life and death situation like this one? One by one our other roommates come home to the sight of us, huddled together for warmth. At the risk of asphyxiation or explosion, no one goes in the house.
A half an hour passes, then an hour. Still no sign of the gas man. It is very, very cold outside. The uncharitable Boston wind begins to form a new snow drift against our bodies. Several housemates retreat into the house. Finally, an hour and a half after our call, a gas company van pulls up.
A man approaches. He wears a parka and a gas mask and carries what looks like a metal detector. We usher him into the kitchen, where he proceeds to run the detector over the stove and connecting pipes. He then cases the basement. We wait upstairs. When he returns, he looks concerned.
“Well, kids, I have to say, you don’t have any gas leak. I did, however, find a skunk living in your garbage can.”
The moral of this story is that skunk is funkier than natural gas, but it’s always better to err on the side of caution. Natural gas heats over half the homes in the United States. This gas is actually odorless, but utility companies add mercaptan to it (a chemical that smells like sulfur) so that consumers can detect leaks in their homes before it’s too late. If you’ve got a poor sense of smell or would just like to err on the side of caution, you can install a natural gas detector, similar to a smoke detector, in your apartment.
Low levels of gas inhalation won’t harm you, but inhaling a lot of gas can lead to asphyxiation.
If you do suspect a gas leak, extinguish all flames, call your gas company immediately, and leave your apartment. You should also call your landlord.
If you suspect a skunk, you should call your landlord, and thank your lucky stars you haven’t been sprayed.