Home is Where the Pipeline Ends

New research by HEET, Harvard, and PSE Health Energy finds chemical contamination in natural gas delivered to homes. Read the study here.

Researchers took natural gas samples from kitchen stoves across Greater Boston.

In 2015, a natural gas storage facility near Porter Ranch, California, sprung a leak. It went on to release nearly 100,000 tons of gas into the air over four months, becoming the largest gas leak in US history. 

Nathan Phillips, HEET board member and Boston University Professor, along with Bob Ackley of Gas Safety Inc, quickly made their way out to California to survey the area with their Picarro gas detector. The pair began producing visual maps of the concentrations of methane present in the neighborhoods near the leak. Their maps were picked up by the press, who listed HEET as a contact. 

HEET co-executive director Audrey Schulman began getting phone calls. One woman’s daughter had a nose bleed that wouldn’t stop. Another man was losing weight due to constant nausea. Each person who called wanted to know: what’s in the gas?

At the time, Audrey didn’t have an answer. So she gathered a team and got enough funding to conduct a small study on the chemical composition of gas. The team focused on kitchen stoves–the most direct connection to the gas supply in homes. Sampling results were startling and prompted the start of a larger study, made possible by funding from The Barr Foundation and the Putnam Foundation.

Today, HEET can finally begin to answer the question of those concerned California residents so many years ago. 

Home is Where the Pipeline Ends: Characterization of Volatile Organic Compounds Present in Natural Gas at the Point of the Residential End User,” by Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, PSE Healthy Energy, Boston University, and HEET was published this morning in the journal Environmental Science & Technology.

“There is some previous documentation of chemicals found in gas along the pipeline, but until now there has been no independent academic research, accessible to the public, on the chemistry of the gas delivered to our homes,” said Molly Fairchild, a study author and Director at HEET. 

The study took over 200 unburned natural gas samples from 69 unique kitchen stoves and building pipelines across gas territories who together provide service to 93% of Massachusetts gas customers. Gas in these territories enters Massachusetts primarily through the Algonquin and Tennessee pipelines. 

Researchers found 296 unique chemical compounds in the samples, including 21 federally designated hazardous air pollutants, among them benzene, toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene, and hexane. The study examined the presence of these chemicals, but further research is needed to determine human exposure and possible health impacts. 

Until we are able to accurately assess any risks this chemical contamination may present, there are some precautionary actions individuals can take:

  • Safety first: if you smell gas, exit the building without switching lights off or on, and from a safe distance immediately call your gas company to assess whether there is a leak in or nearby your home. 
  • Fix leaks: Finding and fixing small leaks that may not be an explosion risk will reduce potential exposure in the home. A plumber or appliance installer can often provide this service.
  • Increase ventilation: Opening windows and turning on a vent that exhausts to the outside when cooking with gas are simple steps that can lower the risk of indoor exposure. 

Like all good science, this study asks a question and in answering it both tells us something we didn’t know and raises more questions we need to answer. We look forward to following up on what we, or other researchers in the field, learn next. 

For any questions, please reach out to Molly Fairchild, molly.fairchild@heet.org


Read more in these articles:
The New York TimesGas Piped Into Homes Contains Benzene and Other Risky Chemicals, Study Finds
The Boston GlobeScientists measured the pollutants coming from gas stoves in Boston. They found dangerous chemicals.
ForbesLatest Studies From Harvard, Et Al Show Health Hazards Of Gas Cooking
Inside Climate NewsNatural Gas Samples Taken from Boston-Area Homes Contained Numerous Toxic Compounds, a New Harvard Study Finds