Can a Gas Leak in My Home be Fatal?

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The pungent smell of natural gas is a warning sign of danger. Even the smallest spark can cause a catastrophic explosion. David De Lossy/Getty Images

The unpleasant, sulfuric odor of natural gas is not a natural component of the carbon-hydrogen compound. This smell is added to natural gas by suppliers as a warning of potential danger, as inhaling high concentrations of natural gas can lead to asphyxia and even death. Early symptoms of asphyxia include chest pain and fatigue.

Carbon monoxide is produced when natural gas does not burn completely due to faulty installation or insufficient ventilation. The presence of carbon monoxide in the air reduces the amount of oxygen that can be inhaled, which can be fatal. Every year, at least 430 people die from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning in the United States, and 50,000 visit the ER for accidental carbon monoxide poisoning. Unvented space heaters are the primary cause of carbon monoxide poisoning, but furnaces, stoves, kerosene heaters, and vehicles left running in garages also produce fumes.

Despite the potential dangers, natural gas is considered one of the safest and cleanest fossil fuels. When burned correctly, natural gas produces mostly water vapor and carbon dioxide and emits fewer greenhouse gases than wood, coal, or oil, making it a relatively clean fuel. About half of the homes in the United States use natural gas for heating and cooking.

A natural gas leak can increase the risk of fire and explosion, as it spreads quickly and combusts easily. If you suspect a natural gas leak, immediately stop what you’re doing and go outside. Do not use any electrical switches, unplug anything, or use a telephone. Call your gas company to inspect your home.

Detecting Gas Leaks

Natural gas is colorless and odorless in its raw state, but it is extracted from the earth as mostly methane gas and transported through millions of miles of pipelines to consumers. Gas suppliers add the unpleasant odor to natural gas as a warning sign of danger. If you have a cold or poor sense of smell, you can use gas leak detectors to detect natural gas leaks.

If you own a gas stove, the air inside your home contains approximately 5 to 15 parts per million of natural gas. However, if the levels exceed 30 parts per million, this is considered dangerous and may indicate a faulty stove according to the EPA. To ensure the methane levels in your home are safe, you can purchase a natural gas detector or carbon monoxide detector which will sound an alarm if the gas levels exceed a safe threshold.

Methane is utilized in gas stoves, heaters, water heaters, and ovens. The possibility of carbon monoxide poisoning from methane increases during the winter months since we tend to heat our homes more frequently. Often, homes are not ventilated during the winter season to retain heat which can cause carbon monoxide poisoning. To avoid this, installing a carbon monoxide detector is a great idea. Like most detectors, an alarm will sound if the air contains high levels of gas.

Other signs of gas leaks can include a hissing sound near gas lines or appliances, dying plants in your home, air bubbles in standing water outside your home, physical symptoms such as nausea, fatigue, headaches, or an abnormally high gas bill, according to Constellation Energy Resources.

Although natural gas used indoors can pose health risks, the highest risk of a natural gas leak occurs outdoors. Since over 2 million miles of natural gas pipeline is situated underground in the United States, it is essential to take caution when digging in your yard. Signs of a broken natural gas pipe include dirt blowing up from the ground on a windless day, a hissing sound, or bubbling water.

If you plan to engage in any deep digging around your house, it is vital to call 811 for the national Underground Service Alert network a few business days before digging. The free service can map out any utilities, including gas pipelines, buried beneath your land. Striking a pipeline can be life-threatening since the gas is highly flammable and could interrupt natural gas service to nearby homes. In the United States, natural gas pipeline leaks and explosions are responsible for about 17 deaths each year, according to Jackson et al.

Originally Published: Jun 2, 2008

Gas Leak FAQ

What is the smell of a gas leak like?

The smell of natural gas is similar to that of rotten eggs, due to the addition of a sulfuric odor that serves as a warning sign for homeowners about the possibility of a gas leak.

What should you do if you detect a gas leak?

If you suspect a gas leak in your home, stop what you are doing and evacuate the building immediately. Inhaling a high concentration of gas can lead to asphyxia, which can result in death.

Is a small gas leak dangerous?

Yes, even a small gas leak can be dangerous as it can ignite and cause an explosion when exposed to another fire source or electrical spark.

What happens if gas leaks from a stove?

A gas leak from a stove is more hazardous than people realize. If you suspect a gas leak, avoid touching any appliances or turning them on, and leave the premises to call for assistance.

Can you become ill from a natural gas leak?

Prolonged exposure to a gas leak can result in various symptoms such as nausea, headaches, and weakness. If you experience any unusual symptoms, call for medical assistance immediately.

More Information Available

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Sources

  • Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Carbon Monoxide Poisoning Prevention.” (June 14, 2022) https://www.cdc.gov/nceh/features/copoisoning/index.html
  • Constellation Energy Resources. “Natural Gas Safety Tips for Your Home.” (June 14, 2022) https://www.constellation.com/energy-101/home-natural-gas-safety-tips.html
  • Jackson, Robert et al. “Natural Gas Pipeline Leaks Across Washington, DC.” Environ. Sci. Technol. Jan. 16, 2014 (June 14, 2022) https://pubs.acs.org/doi/abs/10.1021/es404474x
  • Johns Hopkins Medicine. “What is Carbon Monoxide Poisoning?” (June 14, 2022) https://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/carbon-monoxide-poisoning
  • U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). “Natural Gas Explained.” (June 14, 2022) https://www.eia.gov/energyexplained/natural-gas/
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. “What is the Average Level of Carbon Monoxide in Homes?” (June 14, 2022) https://www.epa.gov/indoor-air-quality-iaq/what-average-level-carbon-monoxide-homes

FAQ

If I have a gas leak in my home, what should I do?

If you smell gas or suspect a gas leak, you should immediately evacuate the premises and call your local gas company or emergency services. Do not turn on any electrical switches or use anything that could create a spark, as this could ignite the gas. It’s important to leave the area as soon as possible and wait for a professional to assess the situation.

What are the signs of a gas leak?

The most common sign of a gas leak is the smell of gas, which is often described as a strong, unpleasant odor similar to rotten eggs. Other signs may include hissing or whistling sounds near gas appliances, dead plants or vegetation near gas lines, or a feeling of dizziness or nausea.

Can a gas leak cause death?

Yes, a gas leak has the potential to be deadly. Inhaling high levels of natural gas can cause suffocation or unconsciousness, and in extreme cases, can lead to death. Additionally, if the gas ignites, it can cause an explosion, which can be fatal.

How can I prevent a gas leak?

There are several steps you can take to prevent a gas leak in your home. First, make sure that all gas appliances are properly installed and maintained by a professional. Additionally, install carbon monoxide detectors in your home and test them regularly. Finally, have your gas lines inspected by a professional on a regular basis to ensure they are in good condition.

What should I do if I suspect a gas leak but can’t smell gas?

If you suspect a gas leak but can’t smell gas, look for other signs such as hissing sounds near gas appliances or dead plants or vegetation near gas lines. Additionally, if you experience symptoms such as dizziness, nausea, or fatigue, this may be a sign of a gas leak and you should evacuate the premises and call for help.

What should I do if I’ve been exposed to natural gas?

If you’ve been exposed to natural gas, it’s important to seek medical attention immediately. Symptoms of exposure can include dizziness, headaches, nausea, and difficulty breathing. In extreme cases, exposure to natural gas can be fatal.

How can I be sure my home is safe from gas leaks?

The best way to ensure your home is safe from gas leaks is to have your gas lines and appliances inspected by a professional on a regular basis. Additionally, install carbon monoxide detectors in your home and test them regularly. If you suspect a gas leak, evacuate the premises immediately and call for help.

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