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 Natural Gas and Propane - Part I
  When we think of natural gas being dangerous (or propane which is derived from natural gas) usually the first thought that comes to mind is an explosion. If you smell gas you might be worried about the house blowing up. If you donít smell gas you probably think thereís nothing to worry about. This is a bad assumption. Often there are toxic chemicals in homes with natural gas at levels below what you can smell. Pure natural gas does not have an odor. The gas company puts a smelly chemical called mercaptin in it so you can smell large gas leaks. Mercaptin itself is toxic. They only put enough in the gas supply so you can smell the big gas leaks.

The main component of natural gas is 98% methane. According to material safety data sheets, breathing methane is not harmful. The only officially documented hazard from breathing methane is asphyxiation. You suffocate. This really doesnít seem common sense. Does this mean breathing natural gas is harmless as long as I donít suffocate? According to the gas company it is. But thatís not taking into consideration the remaining 2% of the ingredients. Gas as delivered to your home or office contains many toxic ingredients and pollutants.

Toxic Ingredients

Gas comes from the ground. Like un-filtered tap water, it contaminates from the ground and from the gas supply lines. These include:
  • Heavy metals
  • Radon
  • PCBs
  • Dioxin
  • VOCs, benzene, toluene

There is a network of gas supply lines distributed across the country and shared by different gas companies. You literally donít know where the gas you use comes from and what might be in it.

Toxic chemicals are either intentionally added or picked up in the gas supply lines. This includes PCBs, dioxins, benzene, toluene, tars, oils, waxes and other "plug-flow" type chemicals. Many of these are known or probable carcinogens. These are sporadic and appear in the flame as different colors.

Some natural gas deposits have been found to contain high concentrations of heavy metals, including lead, copper, mercury, silver, and arsenic. They accumulate on the burners of gas stoves as black deposits. Check the area around the pilot light. If there is a white powder it is likely arsenic oxide.  Some natural gas deposits contain radon. Radon is known to cause lung cancer and can be transported into buildings that use natural gas.

Chemicals Produced when Gas is Burned

Even if gas was filtered before being delivered to your home, burning gas would still expose you to toxic chemicals. Like an automobile engine, no gas appliance burns with 100% efficiency. If there was 100% combustion efficiency, the by-products would simply be water and carbon dioxide, basically what you exhale when you breathe. But this is not the case. There are many toxic combustion pollutants. Who likes to breathe exhaust from the tail pipe of a car? The most are:

  • Carbon monoxide
  • Formaldehyde
  • Volatile Organic Compounds

Carbon monoxide is an odorless, colorless gas that binds to hemoglobin in the blood stream with about 200 times better than oxygen, reducing the amount of oxygen transported to tissue. Formaldehyde is a known carcinogen.  There is a long list of other chemicals produced when gas is burned, most of which have difficult to pronounce names and are carcinogens. Water vapor is produced during combustion. Water vapor carries toxins deep into the lungs when you breathe.

You donít smell chemicals but they are present in your home when gas is burned. On gas appliances where the pilot light is constantly lit they are being spewed out twenty-four hours a day. Higher levels of carbon monoxide may occur indoors when a gas appliance back drafts. Back drafting occurs when the exhaust does not go up the flue because there is not enough make-up air indoors. The potential for this is higher in homes that are air-tight or weatherized for energy efficiency.

Health Issues

Natural gas has been found to be one of the most important sources of indoor air pollution. Natural gas can induce or worsen allergy, asthma and chemical sensitivity. Breathing even small amounts of gas compromises the immune system and increases the risk for asthma attacks, waking with shortness of breath and tingling sensations in the extremities. Clinical studies show that the use of natural gas in the homes, schools, work places or even in the neighborhoods can exacerbate illness and inhibit recovery.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

Most people have heard about carbon monoxide poisoning. Carbon monoxide is one of the primary components when gas is burned. Lower concentrations of carbon monoxide may cause headaches, dizziness, nausea and fatigue in healthy people and chest pain in people with heart disease. At high concentrations it can cause unconscious and result in death.  According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), carbon monoxide sends over 10,000 to the hospital and kills over 1,500 each year.

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Revised: July 05, 2017.

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