OBJECTIVES: Sewer workers are used to unpleasant smells, but may be required to investigate unusual ones. Twenty six men were involved in investigation of episodes of such a smell after neighbourhood complaints over several weeks. METHODS: Workers exposed to the smell were investigated by clinical follow up, lung function tests, and measurement of pituitary function. RESULTS: 14 of the 26 developed subacute symptoms including sore throat, cough, chest tightness, breathlessness, thirst, sweating, irritability, and loss of libido. Severity of symptoms seemed to be dose related. Minor symptoms resolved over several weeks but those more seriously affected have shown deteriorating respiratory symptoms and lung function and remain unable to work a year after the incident. In one, evidence of mild cranial diabetes insipidus was found. Analysis of gas from the sewer showed the presence of a mixture of thiols and sulphides, known to be highly odorous and not normally found in sewers. The source remains unknown. CONCLUSIONS: Several of these men seem to have developed delayed airways disease and disturbances of hypothalamic function. Such an outcome has not to our knowledge been described before. Despite the presence of the smell, standard safety gas detection equipment used to ensure the sewer was safe to enter failed to indicate the presence of a hazard. Protection against such incidents can only be provided by the use of positive pressure breathing apparatus.
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