Natural gas is a fossil fuel. It is formed when layers of buried plants and animals are exposed to pressure and heat for thousands of years. Natural gas is primarily composed of methane. Methane is a highly flammable compound. In its purest form, natural gas is colourless and odourless. Gas manufacturing companies add a tinge of warning smell to it that helps in the detection of any natural gas leakage. Although natural gas plays an important role in the automobile industry, where it is extensively used as fuel in vehicles, natural gas leakage can pose serious health problems.
Common Health Problems
Exposure to natural gas through gas leaks can be harmful. It may lead to explosions and pose serious health hazards that are sometimes even fatal. Small gas leaks accumulate over a period of time and add a significant amount of pollutants that stress the immune system and other bodily functions. According to the National Library of Medicine, "If a natural gas leak has occurred and is severe, oxygen can be reduced, causing dizziness, fatigue, nausea, headache, and irregular breathing." Gas leaks can cause serious harm to plants, thus affecting the environmental ecosystem as well.
One of the major health effects of natural gas leakage (or exposure to methane) is asphyxiation. It is a serious health condition where the body is not able to get sufficient oxygen supply, which may lead to loss of consciousness, brain damage and death. People with high chemical sensitivity are more susceptible to this disease.
Effects on Respiratory System
Leakage and subsequent combustion of natural gas releases large amounts of water vapour, ashes, volatile organic compounds and toxic fumes into the atmosphere. These particulates and substances pass through our respiratory system and enter deep into the lungs and body, bringing about respiratory diseases. Also, natural gas is lighter than air and therefore rises up, concentrating nearer to the head. Associated symptoms such as pneumonia, nausea, vomiting, irregular breathing, memory loss, fatigue, sinus pain and headache are also reported because of the exposure to natural gas leaks in lower concentrations. Some other adverse effects include flatulence, diarrhoea, constipation, depression, itching in genitals and pain in hands and legs.
Methanethiol (methyl mercaptan) or ethanethiol (ethyl mercaptan) is the odorant that is added by the natural gas companies to detect its leakage. When inhaled in sufficient amounts, ethanethiol causes physiological effects such as dizziness, headache, vomiting, shivering, fever and unconsciousness. Natural gas may also contain several contaminants like PCBs (polychlorinated biphenyl), benzene, toluene and radon (radon is present in natural gas in its original state). We inhale benzene and toluene during gas leaks. They pose serious health threats. PCBs, benzene and radon are carcinogenic (cancer-causing), whereas toluene may cause reproductive harm.