Le Pong sours cross-Channel relations before Cameron EU speech

Gas leak at French factory sends panic-inducing and breakfast-ruining odour to Kent, Sussex and south-east London

As a metaphor made literal it was almost too good to be true: a day before David Cameron’s much-heralded speech on his worries about the EU, an offensive stink drifted across from continental Europe, putting Britons off their breakfast.

The reality was more prosaic. The odour, variously described as cabbage, rotten eggs or diesel, came from a leak of a harmless – if undeniably smelly – gas at a chemical works in the northern French city of Rouen. After much nose-holding and occasional reports of nausea and headaches around Rouen and Paris, about 70 miles away, the cloud was blown across the channel into Kent and Sussex, and then to the south-east of London.

Its arrival on British shores brought a flurry of calls to local police and the National Grid’s gas emergency line, with the latter reporting 60,000 calls by 10am on Tuesday, as against a normal daily total of 10,000. Official reassurance often came via Facebook and Twitter, with Hastings police using the self-explanatory #noneedtopanic hashtag.

Alarm was, inevitably, replaced on social media by a welter of flatulence jokes and jibes at neighbouring towns accused of always smelling that way. Before too long the semi-official term Le Pong emerged, seemingly coined by a Portsmouth newspaper.

The gas was mercaptan, also known as methanethiol, a naturally occurring substance used as an additive in the chemicals industry and in animal feeds. Testament to its odour comes in the fact the substance is not only closely related to the smell in a skunk’s spray but plays a key part in the aromas of halitosis and flatulence.

It began leaking on Monday morning from the Lubrizol plant in Rouen, a company belonging to the US business magnate Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway empire. As the cloud drifted to Paris, the fire service and interior ministry had to ask people to stop ringing clogged emergency phone numbers. Paris police had their own take on the smell, describing it vividly as a combination of “sweat, garlic and rotten eggs”.

Overnight the gas drifted across the Channel, bringing as much confusion as outright panic. “I could definitely smell burning. We thought something must be on fire,” Keri Bond, manager of the Champneys spa in Tunbridge Wells, Kent, told the BBC. “We were going into every room and smelling it to see if there was a fire. It smelled like burning or as if the air conditioning system had broken down.”

The calls to emergency services began, with the London fire brigade reporting 25 connected to the gas before 10.30am. While some fire services advised people to close doors and windows – arguably good advice anyway during a cold snap in January – the Health Protection Agency said the aroma would cause nothing worse than mild nausea and should naturally disperse.

Back in Rouen, Lubrizol staff were struggling to stop the leak on Tuesday, with the smell still sufficiently strong to prompt the cancellation a French Cup tie between third-division Rouen, whose stadium is near the factory, and Olympique de Marseille.

“It’s not so much a leak as a product that has decomposed, which smells very bad and which is escaping,” Pierre-Jean Payrouse of Lubrizol told RTL radio. “An investigation is under way but our priority is to deal with the problem.”

Some French people remained sceptical about the safety assurances. “Everyone says there’s nothing to panic about,” one woman, Patricia Cousteau, was quoted as saying in the Paris Normandie newspaper. “But they said the same thing about the Chernobyl cloud.”

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