I love the old honeymooners TV series. Jackie Gleason's bus driver and Art Carney's dedicated sewer worker were the perfect pair. Carney often waxed poetic about the wonders of sewers and was, in fact, speaking the truth. The thought of a city with all its waste running in the gutters is appalling.
Scene of the Crime
The Paris sewers play a central role in the classic Victor Hugo novel Les Miserables, from which sprung the hit musical play. The hero Jean Valjean carries the wounded young revolutionary Marius through the sewer to safety. Hugo goes on at length about the greatness of sewers.
The sewer is a wonderful invention, but it does not eliminate the society's effluents, it simply gets them out of the sight and smell of the general public. Sewers also need service and repairs, so that Art Carney's real-life counterparts must go below and work under some very unpleasant conditions.
The case at hand occurred some 30 years ago, when a nine-man crew of electrical utility workers was sent to clean out a salt water canal some 40 feet below the surface. The workers were mucking out a big mass of sludge as part of this annual cleaning. Unfortunately, the disturbed sludge released a huge burst of sewer gas, also known as rotten egg gas or technically, as hydrogen sulfide.
This stuff is so foul it sends most people fleeing for fresh air. It is also dangerous in high concentrations, causing loss of consciousness or even death. The workers had no time to escape and a half dozen collapsed almost immediately. Firemen were sent to the scene with oxygen and respirators and proceeded to hoist the unconscious and semiconscious men to the surface, one by one. Newspaper accounts described the scene as desperate. The overcome workers were in danger of drowning, as well as asphyxiating, and even the firemen were running out of oxygen. Some of the men were in critical condition and almost all had to be hospitalized.
The plaintiff realized the danger early on and tried to escape. He was part-way up the 40-ft ladder to the surface when he lost consciousness and fell, receiving grievous injuries. Naturally, he sued.
My attorney-client asked me to find out just what caused the problem. Apparently the reports of the presence of sewer gas in the tunnel were not enough to establish the cause of the accident.
The Smoking Gun
All I had to go on were a penny, nickel and quarter that the plaintiff carried in his pocket. The figure below shows the front of the heavily corroded subject penny beside a new coin for comparison. The other coins were attacked less. I focused my attention on the penny because of the simpler metallurgy, copper plus a few percent zinc, and the greater number of corrosion studies on such alloys.
I had an x-ray diffraction pattern made of the black film, but was unable to connect it with any known compound. This failure is not surprising as solids are often present in peculiar, non-recognizable metastable crystal structures. I also used the electron probe in an effort to determine the composition of the black corrosion product. In this technique, electrons bombard the surface of the unknown, which causes the atoms to emit x-rays. Each element emits x-rays of very specific wave-lengths. The layer was found to have copper, as expected, but also sulfur. The coin itself contains no sulfur.
My literature search revealed that sewer gas was the only sulfur-bearing gas that would give visible corrosion in the short interval the plaintiff was exposed without instantly killing the workers. The required concentration was well into the hazardous range. So, the lawyer had his proof that his client had been exposed to a dangerous concentration of sewer gas.
The lawyer obtained a nice settlement prior to trial, but balked at paying my bill. He clearly valued my services less than I did. I was finally paid after some testy exchanges.