Last week, the library at Australia’s University of Canberra was evacuated due to fears that a funky smell was being caused by a gas leak. Firefighters were called to the scene and hazmat crews conducted atmospheric monitoring of the building. Fortunately, as Michael McGowan reports for the Guardian, the source of the stench was found to be a benign (if very stinky) durian—the divisive fruit with a smell so pungent it is banned in some southeast Asian hotels, transport systems and public places.
“Thanks to everyone for evacuating so quickly and safely—about 550 people left the building in under six minutes,” the library posted on its Facebook page. “Fortunately the suspected gas leak turned out to be a part of a durian—the offending fruit has now been removed.”
The durian had reportedly been left near an air vent, though there’s no word on who did it. The incident marks the second time in recent months that the fruit has disrupted the peace at an Australian library; last April, 600 people were evacuated from a school library at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology after the smell of a rotting durian was also mistaken for a gas leak.
Attempts to describe the fruit by those brave enough to try it offer a keen sense of how the durian might drive hundreds of people out of a building. “Imagine to have under your nose a heap of rotten onion and you will still have but a faint idea of the insupportable odour which emanates from these trees and when its fruit is opened the offensive smell becomes even stronger,” the Italian explorer Giovanni Battista Cerruti wrote in the early 20th century. More recently, the food writer Richard Sterling described the durian’s stench in less refined terms, calling it “pig sh*t, turpentine and onions, garnished with a gym sock.”
But the durian also has many fans, who extoll its taste—“[Y]ou’ll experience overtones of hazelnut, apricot, caramelized banana and egg custard,” writes Thomas Fuller of the New York Times—and have grown to appreciate the pungent smell. In parts of southeast Asia, the durian is a delicacy; in Malaysia, it is known as the “king of fruits.”
The durian’s overpowering stench seems to stem from a unique combination of 50 compounds, which individually have been described as “fruity, skunky, metallic, rubbery, burnt, roasted onion, garlic, cheese, onion and honey,” according to Joseph Stromberg who wrote about the fruit for Smithsonian in 2012. More recently, a study found a class of the durian’s genes “work overtime” to produce volatile sulfur compounds, which is why it wallops our nostrils with its scent.
The University of Canberra is taking the stinky disruption in good stride. In light of last week’s incident, the library temporarily changed its Facebook profile picture to an illustration of the durian struck through in red—the same image posted in places that want to make it clear that the fruit is not welcome.