Do You Know What's in Your Natural Gas? This Small Study Wanted The Answer

Do You Know What's in Your Natural Gas? This Small Study Wanted The Answer ...

Natural gas is experiencing a golden age of consumption, from industrial processes to electricity generation. Methane is the preferred fuel for a green-washed market.

Methane is a significant pollutant in its own right, although it is less harmful than its liquid and solid hydrocarbon cousins. What's more, the natural gas it comes packaged in might be delivered to our homes with a lot of unpleasant guests.

Massachusetts, a state in the United States, has collaborated on a project that aims to decipher the different types of chemicals that are being piped into our kitchens, basements, and living rooms for cooking and heating.

What they discovered should give us even more reason to rely on methane as a low-polluting energy source.

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

"These same substances are also likely to be present in leaky gas distribution networks in cities and up the supply chain."

Methane is a term used to describe a carbon that bristles with a quartet of hydrogen atoms. It forms readily near larger hydrocarbon deposits, such as oil and coal.

Being so tiny, it converts quickly and effectively into carbon dioxide and water, making it a handy gasoline source that can be easily pumped into homes and factories.

At least, that's the clean version. Methane itself is a powerful greenhouse gas that can be released from virtually any component of the transportation process.

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

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

The gas that collects around fossil fuel deposits and other sources of methane isn't exactly pure. Mixed among those simple carbon blocks are longer chains of hydrocarbon, including a whole mess of complicated squiggles, rings, and branches.

Volatile organic compounds (VOCs) such as diverse alkanes, cycloalkanes, and aromatics such as benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene (not to mention non-organic materials such as hydrogen sulfide, helium, and nitrogen) contribute to the complex recipe of freshly mined natural gas.

Not all of these compounds are harmful for us, but a good proportion, including many of the aromatics, may reduce the risk of cancer in sufficient doses, while also providing a starting point for reactions that generate atmospheric particulates and pollutants like ozone.

What hasn't been clarified is how many of these more dangerous substances exist if any remain from the source into our homes. Most gas providers in the United States keep a close eye on their products to verify their heating performance and to meet various standards.

Nonetheless, these methods aren't particularly efficient at tracking large carbon molecules, making it difficult to detect the exact composition of the gas we burn.

Researchers collected 234 natural gas samples from 69 kitchen stoves across the Greater Boston region from the end of 2019 through mid-2021. An extensive examination of these samples revealed a great deal of variation across the region and throughout the time period.

Hundreds of unique compounds were common among them, of which 21 about 7 percent were considered dangerous by federal regulations at acceptable levels.

In addition, they measured the amount of odorants used to draw attention to large concentrations of the typically scentless gas. Alarmingly, some of the smaller leaks that occur in our houses of around 20 parts per million could be too faint to smell.

While the study did not go so far as to link leaks or exposure to natural gas with health issues or calculate the potential impact on the environment, it's enough of a wake-up call to pay greater attention to what may be a growing concern.

"Policymakers and utilities may enhance consumer awareness about how natural gas is distributed to homes and the health hazards of leaky gas appliances and leaky gas pipes under roadways, as well as making alternatives more accessible," says Buonocore.

This work was published in Environmental Science & Technology.

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