That’s Not Sewer You Smell In SW Lawton, It’s Deadly H2S Gas
For years and years, Lawton residents that live way out on the west side have complained about the sewer smell that tends to inundate the area, especially when the winds are calm... but it's not the sewer Lawtonians out west are smelling, it's a deadly byproduct of making paper.
In paper mills all over the country, the fluid they use to break down plant fibers is called white liquor. It's a mixture of toxic chemicals that make efficient work of creating pulp. As a result of processing pulp and breaking down the chemicals for waste, a deadly gas is produced called Hydrogen Sulfide - AKA - H2S.
H2S isn't unique to paper mills, it has a much larger impact in the oil and gas industries, but the lethality isn't based on where it originates, only that it exists.
If you've driven that side of town and smelled that odor, reminiscent of sewage or rotting eggs, you've been exposed to it. The reason it permeates the area is, being heavier than air, it spreads across the country at ground level. It can not only instantly kill you in high enough concentrations, but it's also incredibly flammable at very low concentrations.
The City of Lawton has been trying to help our local paper mill mitigate its H2S output, first addressed back in 2019. The idea was sewer rehabilitation... a bigger sewer would eliminate the Southwest Lawton contamination, but it apparently hasn't been as successful as they hoped.
In the latest update, the city provided a response to the ongoing complaints from residents. The paper mill is still to blame for leaching this deadly gas, but everyone seems to agree it's at least happening at a "safe level."
You can totally trust the perpitrators and government when they say it's safe, right? It's not like tax revenue and economic jobs depend on it, right?
People exposed to H2S generally start experiencing nasua, watery eyes, headaches, and loss of sleep in a concentration of 2PPM (two parts-per-million)... but if you're especially sensitive to it, it can happen at lower concentrations too.
There are several peer-reviewed studies online finding a link between respiratory issues in youths and the elderly that live within proximity to paper mills that produce H2S as a byproduct. Long-term exposure at even low "safe" levels were studied to be the cause of respiratory illness even as far away as 30 miles.
Here's the rub... While Hydrogen Sulfide starts affecting humans right around 2PPM, we can start to smell it around a much, much lower level, around 0.008PPM. So how would a person estimate their actual exposure? They make monitors for it.
While there are dozens and dozens of H2S monitors on the internet, they don't all work the same. Most of them are purpose built for workers that spend time in and around this deadly gas during the workday... Refinery workers, oil and gas drillers, paper mill and textile workers... These types will only alert at a threshold of immediate danger.
That's not helpful if you're living with H2S exposure at a lower level than lethal... Luckily, there are different, affordable detector/monitors available that will measure those low, long-exposure levels. Perfect for hanging in the house or walking around the yard with.
While it's unclear of what shall come to pass, the City of Lawton at least seems to be working towards ending a decades-long battle in your sinuses. If you'd like to see more about symptoms, click here to see OSHA's warnings.
The EPA even recently adopted a motion to require 100% H2S capturing for all paper mills across the country, but I can't find a hard date on when those measures are to be concrete. As it's government business, it's likely decades away even though the technoloy has exists for a hundred years in the oil and gas industries. They capture 100% of their H2S and process it safely, why shouldn't Lawton's paper mill be held to the same standard?
Until then, the only thing a citizen can do is alert the city when you smell this deadly gas. They'll want particulars like what time of day you smelled it, the location where it was, and for how long you were exposed. The number to call with your complaint is 580-581-3445.