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March 18, 1937. It was just 17 minutes before school was to dismiss in the little town of New London, TX. It was oil country, and the school board had decided to save some money by using natural gas siphoned off an oil company’s pipeline. It would allow them to fuel the school’s furnace for free.

Natural gas is odorless. No one knew that a leak had developed and that gas had accumulated in the basement of the school. A spark from a classroom ignited it into a blast that raised the building off its foundation. Around 300 students and teachers were killed. One of the outcomes of that tragedy was a government regulation that now requires companies to add an odorant – methanethiol – to natural gas, in order to make it stink. It’s not a pleasant smell, but without it, people wouldn’t be alerted to the danger they’re in.

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