Residents' Rotten Luck Blamed On Seaweed -- Beach Odor Irritates Those In Fauntleroy

Lest there be any doubt that the Puget Sound region just had a phenomenally warm and sunny summer, ask the folks in Fauntleroy.

"It was a dandy this year," said a none-too-happy Gary Dawson, president of the Fauntleroy Community Association in West Seattle.

Exhibit A: the knock-you-off-your-feet, wake-you-in-the-night smell that wafted in off the sun-baked, rotting seaweed in Fauntleroy Cove the past two months.

The "Fauntleroy stench," as it is known, has come and gone for more than a decade. But this summer, it hit the neighborhood with enough force for the Seattle-King County Department of Public Health to monitor Fauntleroy Cove's air as a possible health hazard.

"It will make you sick," said Judy Pickens, the community association's newsletter editor and "stench specialist."

The Fauntleroy residents are not alone, either. The problem has been reported in a cove near Des Moines, by the Vashon Island ferry dock and on a mud flat near Blaine, said David Anderson, an environmental consultant who has studied the Fauntleroy problem.

"What we think is happening is going on in lots of coves throughout Puget Sound," he said.

At work is a seaweed known as ulva, or sea lettuce, which flourishes in nutrient-rich coves and piles up on shore, where it is fermented by mud-flat bacteria. As the bacteria do their work, they produce hydrogen sulfide, a colorless gas with a distinctive rotten-egg odor that is particularly offensive during low tide.

"It would be sort of the same problem if a dead seal washed up on the beach," said Robert Waaland, a University of Washington botany professor specializing in seaweed biology. "Different smell, but with the same anaerobic bacterial process going on."

"It's the same awful gas that the settling tanks for corporate hog farms produce," said Pickens.

In small amounts, the gas can burn the eyes, nose and throat, according to the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. In moderate amounts, it can bring on headaches, dizziness, nausea, vomiting and respiratory problems.

Headaches and nausea

Dawson and Pickens have been logging complaints all summer, and Pickens has suffered headaches and nausea. They have had no reports of the smell causing a medical emergency.

But at the request of King County Councilman Greg Nickels, the Public Health Department contracted with Anderson's Envirotest Research, a Seattle environmental-testing company, to spend last month monitoring air in a home near the beach. The department can then work on establishing a baseline to gauge when it might pose a health risk, said Carl Osaki, chief of the department's Environmental Health Division.

"One of the problems has been getting any kind of recognized residential standards for hydrogen sulfide," Osaki said.

Guidelines of the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) limit workplace exposures to 10 parts per million. Anderson said the gas can be diluted to about 1 or 2 parts per million in homes and throughout a community but reach concentrations as high as 50 parts per million near seaweed.

"When you know what the OSHA regulations are and that the levels are higher on the beach, it's pretty scary," Osaki said.

Moreover, the gas can anesthesize one's sense of smell at about 25 parts per million, leaving one unaware that concentrations are reaching dangerous levels, Anderson said.

The recent tests, which did not take samples along the beach, did not show concentrations outside the OSHA limits, Anderson said. He declined to be more specific without first submitting his report, which he plans to do tomorrow.

Problem last seen in 1990

When the problem last emerged in 1990, state officials attacked it by corralling the seaweed in nets and hauling it out into the sound, where it was dumped.

They did this for three years at a cost of about $10,000 a year, then stopped.

The problem abated until this summer, when average temperatures were three to four degrees above normal and the Puget Sound area saw more sunshine than usual. For the record, University of Washington meteorologist Clifford Mass reports that the warmth and sun had nothing to do with either El Nino or La Nina.

But the smell did get so bad that it reached nearly to Alki Beach, several miles north of Fauntleroy.

Making matters worse is that the problem cannot be solved by opening a window.

"It fills up the house," said Dawson.

"And it's a heavy gas," added Pickens, "so it stays unless you blow it out. This is the first year we bought a fan."

Eric Sorensen: 206-464-8253. E-mail: