A heavy odor of rotten eggs hung over the mouth of the Ogunquit River for a week in the autumn of 1950. Nobody could figure out where the smell was coming from but it got so bad that businesses were forced to close. On the morning of October 2, 1950, house painters Leavitt Wyman and Maurice Littlefield arrived at their jobsite to find that the house they had been painting white had turned brown overnight. In fact, more than 20 light colored buildings along the shore, for 1,000 feet, from the bridge to Sea Chambers Motel had changed color overnight.
War was raging in Korea. A rumor started to circulate that the North Koreans had floated barrels of poisonous gas toward the United States, which had ruptured on the rocks off the York County Coast. When five York Beach cottages were affected by the same color change phenomenon the following day, speculation hit a fever pitch.
“It looked as though there had been a fire in each of the buildings” explained Mrs. Althine B. Wyman to a reporter for the Portsmouth Herald, “and the outside had been stained by smoke and rust-colored water.” William Ferguson owned 11 of the affected buildings. The Old Wharf Inn and The Beach House were damaged as were the Methodist Church and the Surf Side Pavilion.
Town Manager Ernest C. Marriner was inundated with calls. “We want to get at the cause of the thing first,” he told the Herald reporter. “First, it must be halted. Then any worry about the house damage spreading past the waterfront area and into other sections of the town can be averted.”
Henry Mullen, a chemist for a Boston paint concern, was summoned to identify the source of the potentially costly brown scourge. Mullen ascertained that the mysterious transformation was caused by a chemical reaction between lead paint on the buildings and Hydrogen Sulfide Gas. Further investigation revealed that the gas was emanating from seaweed decaying in the Ogunquit River and on York Beach. Much to the relief of the residents, Mr. Ferguson in particular, the brown coloration was removed by washing the buildings with a neutralizer like Hydrogen Peroxide. Fire Chief Robert W. Ellis was charged with neutralizing the foul smelling seaweed. Fears of chemical warfare in southern Maine were assuaged.
Hydrogen Sulfide Gas does occur naturally when organic materials rot in stagnant water. The distinctive odor is well known to those living near tidal flats and is usually harmless when it occurs naturally. Fortunately, an overwhelming smell of rotten eggs is evident long before the toxins reach dangerous levels. But in high concentrations Hydrogen Sulfide Gas is as deadly as carbon monoxide or cyanide.
A near-fatal incident in France during the summer of 2009 drew attention to the dangers of this toxin. Vincent Petit was horseback riding on the beach at Saint Michel de Greve when his horse slipped and fell into some smelly slime, suddenly breaking the crust that contained the poisonous gas. The horse died immediately from inhaling the fumes and his 28-year-old rider lost consciousness. Onlookers rushed Vincent to the hospital where he was able to make a full recovery. News of the incident spread worldwide and beaches in the area were closed. France’s national institute for environmental threats, INERIS was called in to address the hazard.
A recipe for making Hydrogen Sulfide Gas out of household products was posted on the internet several years ago. It was used in a bizarre rash of suicides in Japan and more recently, cases of “Detergent Suicide,” as it has come to be known, have been reported in this country.
Lead in paint is now outlawed as a neurotoxin. The chemical reaction that darkens its color in the presence of Hydrogen Sulfide Gas is sometimes used as an inexpensive method for detecting unacceptable lead levels in old buildings. The people of Ogunquit had no idea what they were up against in 1950. Not only was the lead paint that covered so many of their buildings dangerous to their health, the level of Hydrogen Sulfide Gas emanating from the Ogunquit River had to have been dangerously high to change the color of the paint on dozens of buildings.
Newspaper reports covering the 1950 incident in Ogunquit focused on the potential cost of repainting the buildings. Unbeknownst to them, they had also dodged a much deadlier bullet.