It was stinky but it wasn’t dangerous.
That was the conclusion after the scent of sewage wafted through Salmon Arm Secondary’s Sullivan campus Tuesday.
Although some parents were concerned, particularly about the danger of gases produced by sewage, Dr. Kamran Golmohammadi, medical health officer for Interior Health, told the Observer the incident was handled correctly.
“It was brought to the attention of one of our environmental public health officers,” he said, who reviewed the situation and kept in communication with school officials.
“I don’t have any concerns with the way the case was handled.”
Golmohammadi noted, however, there is reason for concern when you smell such gases and, to complicate matters, there are toxic gases that have no odour.
“It’s a very combined and complex gas when you’re talking about sewer gas – it’s not one single agent or substance.”
In the case of the Sullivan campus, he said he understands it originated in an unused area. He explains that where plumbing is connected to the sewer, a level of water is kept in a U-shaped system called a P-trap.
“It’s a simple mechanism that keeps the sewer gas outside.”
When the water dries up in the trap, sometimes gas odours can be detected,” Golmohammadi said, noting gases such as hydrogen sulphide can be toxic and dangerous at certain concentrations.
The toxicity generally happens, however, in occupational settings where people are trapped in confined spaces with no circulation and a high concentration of the ingredient.
In a residence or school, he said, it’s not unusual for the cause of an odour to be the P-trap not working.
“Our advice would be to get in touch with the maintenance people and make sure the equipment is functioning and in good order,” he said, noting that circulation of air is important.
Many students left the school because of the smell.
Golmohammadi said people who are more sensitive might have a headache or irritation of the respiratory system.
Glenn Borthistle, superintendent of schools, said the district’s plumbers were called in and determined the dried traps were mostly likely the cause.
He said they tested for the presence of gases and found the school was safe.
The fire department was also called in and came up with the same conclusion.
Borthistle said principal Rob Macaulay spoke with an environmental health officer who confirmed the right steps were taken.
“It was an uncomfortable situation for sure but it was not unsafe,” said Borthistle.
The Snowball Dance that night was cancelled.
“Many students signed out that day because it was uncomfortable to be there, but while the smell was gone by noon, we thought, let’s not try to pull this together tonight.”
Overall, Borthistle said, “I’d like to express confidence in our operations staff, and how Mr. Macaulay approached the issue and made sure the building was safe.”