A History of Odorization from Water Gas to Natural Gas

Whether water gas or natural gas, the desire to keep people safe has always driven the history of gas odorization.

Town Gas Naturally Reeks

In Europe, during the early 1800s and the gas industry’s initial stages, town gas was manufactured for lighting and heating. This gas was produced from coal’s carbonization, containing mostly hydrogen and carbon monoxide, and was poisonous. The gas also contained sulfur compounds and innately had a gassy odor, so if there was a leak, it smelled.

First Odorized Gas

The first odorization (i.e., adding an odorant to gas so that it is detectable by smell) occurred in Germany during the 1880s. Von Quaglio added ethyl mercaptan to water gas in that situation to reproduce the gassy odor associated with town gas and make it detectable.

Tragically, however, the New London, Texas disaster was the impetus for widespread odorization.

Gas odorization history and New London School

The above monument (by sculptor Matchett Herring Coe 1939) commemorates the New London School Explosion.

New London School Explosion

The New London, Texas economy was boosted in 1930 through an oil find in Rusk County. As a result, the London School was built in 1932 at the cost of 1 million dollars and was considered a modern steel-framed building. In 1937, the New London, Texas, school board decided to cut costs by dropping their contract with the United Gas Company. With approval from the superintendent, plumbers tapped a residue gas line from a local oil company to use green or wet gas. The oil companies typically would flare off this waste gas. However, utilizing the waste gas became a common money-saving practice for buildings on the oilfield at that time, although the oil companies did not explicitly authorize its use.

The odorless and undetectable natural gas leaked from the residue line’s connection and made its way into the crawlspace, which ran the school’s length. The gas built up until there was a spark igniting the gas. The explosion left behind a collapsed building, with as many as 295 deaths.

Gas Odorization

As a result of the disaster, the United States and Canada began regulating the use of odorants in gas. The current US regulation is 49CFR, 192.625, “Odorization of Gas.” It mandates that any combustible gas within a distribution line and transmission line (exceptions noted in the rules) must contain odorant at the level of 20% (1/5) of the lower explosive limit so that a person with a “typical” sense of smell can detect it. To read the current regulations, we have posted them at  What are the Natural Gas Odorization Regulations?

Showing 17 comments
  • Suse

    Wow. Almost every kid in town – gone.

  • David Grimes

    Of all the subjects ive haf a discussion about this one of the obscure topict that google had the answer to brovo.

    • Phil

      Watching a documentary that claimed a gas explosion in 1887 in Boston was preceded by a smell. Could that be true?

  • JIM


    • Kelly

      I was wondering the same thing and cannot find an answer anywhere.

    • kerry

      A lady just died from a gas explosion at a 5-star resort (in her villa) I go to every year in Cabo. These villas rent for between $1200-$1500 per night for last minute guests. The answer came back to me that no they don’t odorize the gas in Mexico and it is a really big problem.

    • Scarlet Rose

      My son and I were almost killed by carbon monoxide due to a leaking seal in a hot water tank in a rented house. No, we did not get a settlement and we have been trying to get our health back for the past 12 years. There is no smell to this kind of leak and it can go on for months before it completely ruptures. There is no smell because Carbon Monoxide is a by-product of a gas that is not fully burned. So the smell of natural gas has burned up but not the by-product Carbon Monoxide.

      • Senator

        And that is why having a portable carbon monoxide detector is so important when traveling and permanent ones installed in every home.

    • Charles Grider

      Mexico City is one of the last large cities that doesn’t have pipes delivery of natural gas but relies on propane delivery. Propane, unlike, natural gas, is heavier than air and can pool as a gas in low areas and basements.

    • Banker

      Stop screaming. It’s rude.

  • mark powell

    ah censorship of the web means you can ask a question and the answer isnt there , i mean all i want to know is when natural gas was first given its modern scent in the UK …no answer exists back to the library for me

    • K.

      Approximately 1937 for US andCanada ?

    • William

      this is what I found.
      International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control
      Volume 37, June 2015, Pages 504-512
      International Journal of Greenhouse Gas Control
      Odourisation of CO2 pipelines in the UK: Historical and current impacts of smell during gas transport

      2.3.2. Reformed gas
      Technical advances improved the efficiency of gas manufacture. >>From the late 1950’s, various high temperature reforming processes were utilised to make gas from petroleum products such as naphtha or propane; this reformed gas (gas produced from oil) had no discernible odour associated with it (Sonley, 2012). In keeping with the regulations as outlined by the Gas Acts during that time, a method of detection was necessary. <<At the time, operations were controlled by twelve area Gas Boards, which were governed by the Gas Council. Discussions took place to add a smell, which would be suitable and meet the Gas Acts requirements. Based on the odourants used in America, thiolane (THT, (CH2)4S) a saturated analogue of thiophene was selected (Sonley, 2012). Additionally, many of the coal gas pipes were reused which retained the distinct coal gas odour. This meant the reformed gas also retained the familiar warning smell the public were accustomed to for a limited amount of time.

    • Odie

      I believe the UK began odorizing their gas in the late 1880’s because of the street lamps .

    • Senator

      Coal gas was dominantly used until the 1960’s, when it was replaced by other forms of natural gas. Coal gas has a naturally distinctive smell associated with it”

      See: Science Direct: Odourisation of CO2 pipelines in the UK: Historical and current impacts of smell during gas transport

    • crystal

      If you read the full article you will see Germany added odorants into their gas in the 1800’s I am sure places like England and France followed suit shortly after and then the whole of the UK was not far behind.

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