As soon as she gets a whiff of the foul fumes, Stacy-Jo Krasa opens the windows, grabs her infant son and leaves her home in an upscale Sykesville subdivision. It might be hours before the air is cleared of the smell of sewer gas and they can return home after spending the day with family members.
Only the hottest weather will entice her to shut up the house and turn on the air conditioning.
Hot, humid days usually bring on the smell, she said. The gas - also known as hydrogen sulfide - "wafts up the stairs from the basement and often fills the powder room," Krasa said. "I try to keep the house open as much as possible."
For the next month, Krasa and several neighbors will know whether the gas is present long before they can smell it. Carroll County public works crews and a consulting engineer experienced in analyzing toxic gases installed supersensitive monitors in the basements of three homes yesterday.
The equipment, about the size of a bread box, can detect sewer gas in parts per billion and will give readings every 15 minutes that can show even a minute gas build-up in the homes. A fourth monitor, equipped with a wind detector that can determine the direction the gas is flowing, is mounted in a locked case in Krasa's backyard.
"Hopefully, the monitors will help us know if there is any gas in the house at any time and where it is coming from," said Krasa, who has lived in her home for three years.
She said she will check the monitor frequently and will still leave the house before her baby inhales any fumes, she hopes.
Four-month-old Noah Krasa has liver and gastrointestinal problems that doctors have said might be related to the gas. The baby, who was born with jaundice, undergoes blood tests every other week. "Doctors are not ruling out the effects of hydrogen sulfide," Krasa said.
"We are so worried," Krasa said. "We would love to think there is nothing wrong, but the lab tests keeping telling us something different. "
Hydrogen sulfide is a colorless gas with a stench comparable to that of rotten eggs. Most people can smell it at two parts per billion.
"This gas is a problem everywhere," said Paul Beehler, field service engineer for Arizona Instrument, the company that is leasing the equipment to Carroll County this month at a cost of nearly $17,000.
County staffers will collect data from the monitors throughout the month and match it with weather conditions, particularly temperature and wind, and with information from the nearby sewer pumping station.
Residents say they have connected the station's pumping cycle to the smell.
"Every time you run the pump, we can get a smell," said Camilla Buczek, who moved to the subdivision in November 2003. "I have kept a careful log."
The county has monitored sewer gas levels since January in two manholes near the homes. The devices, which collect data every five minutes, read zero yesterday, but they are limited to readings in parts per million.
"About 99 percent of the time, hydrogen sulfide is the odor-producing compound," said Greg Tomlinson, a representative of USFilter, whose equipment is in the manholes. "It is the easiest to form and the most volatile."
Neighbors in the Shannon Run subdivision, where homes sell for about $500,000, have repeatedly complained to the county about the intermittent smell of sewer gas. The county has tried without success to find the source of the gas. The monitors will not reveal the source but will determine the presence of hydrogen sulfide, officials said.
The smell occurs most frequently during warm, rainy weather, said Buczek, who first detected it last year when she turned on her air conditioning. She has since installed an $800 gas-removal system and has spent nearly $10,000 on an engineering study and additional plumbing work.
In a meeting with the commissioners this month, Buczek detailed the numerous complaints of five Shannon Run homeowners who have repeatedly called the county in the past five years.
"Something is not right in this whole section of the development," Buczek said.
Sykesville Councilman Mark Rychwalski, who has been working with the homeowners and the county, said the new monitors should help ease fears and point to a solution.
"At this point, I have to say the county is doing its utmost to solve this problem," Rychwalski said. "This is a full-court press with all the experts available."