Do You Know What's in Your Natural Gas?

Natural gas is enjoying a golden era of usage as a greener alternative to coal and oil. Methane has become the fuel of choice for a green-washed industry, used in everything from industrial operations to energy generation.

Despite producing substantially less carbon dioxide than its liquid and solid hydrocarbon siblings, methane is a hazardous pollution in its own right. Furthermore, the natural gas in which it is bottled might be delivered to our houses with a slew of unwelcome visitors.

Researchers from around the United States' state of Massachusetts worked on a research to dissect the cocktail of chemicals pumped into our kitchens, basements, and living rooms for cooking and heating.

What they discovered should make us reconsider our reliance on methane as a low-polluting energy source.

"This study shows that gas appliances like stoves and ovens can be a source of hazardous chemicals in our homes even when we're not using them," says co-author Jonathan Buonocore, a health scientist at the Harvard Chan Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment (C-CHANGE).

"These same chemicals are also likely to be present in leaking gas distribution systems in cities and up the supply chain."

Methane is carbon that is bristled with a quartet of hydrogen atoms. It readily occurs near bigger hydrocarbon deposits, such as those containing oil and coal.

Because it is so tiny, it burns fast and effectively into carbon dioxide and water, making it a convenient fuel source that can be easily pumped into homes and enterprises.

At least, that's the clean version. In truth, methane is a potent greenhouse gas that may escape from practically any portion of the transportation system.

"It is well-established that natural gas is a major source of methane that's driving climate change," said Chan C-CHANGE and PSE Healthy Energy visiting scientist Drew Michanowicz.

"But most people haven't really considered that our homes are where the pipeline ends and that when natural gas leaks it can contain health-damaging air pollutants in addition to climate pollutants."

The gas that gathers around fossil fuel deposits and other methane sources isn't entirely clean. Longer chains of hydrocarbon, comprising a jumble of intricate squiggles, rings, and branches, are mixed in with those simple carbon blocks.

Volatile organic chemicals (VOCs) such as alkanes, cycloalkanes, and aromatics such as benzene, toluene, and ethylbenzene, as well as non-organic components such as hydrogen sulfide, helium, and nitrogen, all add to the complex formula of newly mined natural gas.

Not all of these compounds are harmful to our health, but a significant number, including many aromatics, can increase the risk of cancer at sufficient levels while also serving as a starting point for reactions that produce air particulates and pollutants such as ozone.

What has never been determined is how much of these more dangerous compounds, if any, make their way from the source into our houses. Most gas providers in the United States closely monitor their goods to assess their heating value and compliance with different requirements.

However, because these technologies can not monitor big carbon molecules, it is more difficult to determine the specific composition of the gas we burn.

The researchers gathered 234 samples of natural gas from 69 kitchen stoves in the Greater Boston region between the end of 2019 and the middle of 2021. A thorough examination of these samples revealed significant variance throughout the area and across time.

Hundreds of distinct substances were common among them, with 21 - around 7% - classified harmful at high enough quantities by government regulations.

They also examined the concentration of odorants used to bring attention to high amounts of the normally odorless gas. Some of the smaller leaks that occur in our houses of roughly 20 parts per million may be too subtle to detect.

While the study did not go so far as to link natural gas leaks or exposure to health concerns or assess the potential environmental effect, it is enough of a wake-up call to pay more attention to what might be a developing worry.

"Policymakers and utilities can better educate consumers about how natural gas is distributed to homes and the potential health risks of leaking gas appliances and leaking gas pipes under streets and make alternatives more accessible," adds Buonocore.

This research was published in Environmental Science & Technology