Domestic gas contains hazardous, cancer-causing air pollutants

From stoves to heaters, millions are unaware of the potential health implications of the fuel they use at home.

Harvard University researchers have conducted one of the first in-depth studies looking at the chemical makeup of gas once it reaches domestic consumers. 

black and white gas stove

The work, which analysed residential addresses in the Greater Boston area, concluded that gas contains volatile organic chemicals which can be toxic when leaked and have been directly linked to cancer. Moreover, the gases are known to form secondary health-damaging substances and emissions, including particulate matter and ozone. 

Specifically, the results showed that consumer-grade natural gas supplied to Massachusetts contained different levels of at least 21 hazardous air pollutants. These include benzene, toluene, ethylbezene, and hexane. Higher concentrations of these elements was found to occur in winter time, and leaks of up to 10-times naturally occurring levels can be undetectable. 

A team from the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, PSE Healthy Energy, Atmospheric and Environmental Research, Gas Safety Inc. Boston University, and Home Energy Efficiency Team led the investigation. Results were first published in Environmental Science & Technology

Among other things, the assessment has led to a number of recommendations. In terms of policy, pipeline companies could measure and report on natural gas composition, while utility providers can routinely measure and report on odorant content to customers. Regulators can take measurements of leaked, unburnt gas in ambient air, and new performance standards for stoves and ventilation hoods should be set.

Meanwhile, home owners, landlords and tenants should consider getting domestic natural gas leak detection surveys, increase ventilation when cooking with gas, and ensuring they can recognise the signs and smells of a natural gas leak. A clear plan of how to safely and swiftly exit the building in this event is also important. 

In related news on indoor air pollution, a study in Mongolia’s notoriously polluted capital, Ulaanbaatar, has found that the negative effects of indoor air pollution on brain development may be mitigated through the use of portable air cleaners. 

Image credit: Kwon Junho 

Martin Guttridge-Hewitt
Martin Guttridge-Hewitt is a journalist reporting for Environment Journal, Infotec, and Air Quality News.


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