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Can Air Purifiers Help Porter Ranch Gas Leak Residents?

natural-gas-pipeline-landscape

Porter Ranch, Calif., a lovely community of 30,000 with scenic views of the rolling San Fernando Valley, is officially in a state of emergency due to a nearby natural gas leak. For more than two months, a 40-year old gas storage facility nestled in the hills above the town has been tooting methane gas over the area at a rate of 145,000 pounds per hour, making it the worst gas leak in California's history. But with the local emergency proclamation put in place on Dec. 15 by the county, residents are finally getting salve for their natural gas woes. Among other measures, impacted residents can temporarily relocate free of charge, and are also being given $1,000 each to purchase an air purifier. The question is, how will air purifiers help homeowners in the vicinity of the Porter Ranch gas leaks?

What's that noxious smell in Porter Ranch?

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You can bet that the folks living near the gas leaks have noticed something was off the air -- a something that smelled like a giant rotten egg was cracked over the Porter Ranch region. Although methane has no odor, it does when it's mixed with mercaptan gas. In fact, that's the reason the two are mixed: to allow detection of a natural gas leak via mercaptan's tell-tale sulfur odor. Constant exposure to mercaptans can cause headaches, nausea, and vomiting, and that's exactly what more than 100 Porter Ranch residents have complained of.

Exposure to the natural gas itself is not likely to cause any long-term health problems. However, the noxious aroma of mercaptan-laced leaking natural gas is a problem, along with the fact that the gas may contain trace amounts of possibly harmful volatile organic compounds (VOCs), such as butane and propane. And of course, methane is an explosion hazard, especially at the source, which is exactly why repairs of the Southern California Gas Co.-owned storage facility are taking so darn long: even one spark would be a disaster.

Porter Ranch residents given air purifier vouchers

While nearly 2,000 Porter Ranch residents have chosen to evacuate, many others have stayed put. Their main concern is how to filter out that nasty sulfur odor from the air in their homes, and that's why SoCalGas is giving homeowners a one-grand voucher to purchase an indoor air purifier. First and foremost, it's important to note that Porter Ranch residents cannot use air purifiers to filter methane itself from their air. Methane has a low molecular weight that defies the adsorption and chemisorption capabilities of the filters in air purifiers. So the only way for Porter Ranchers to actually lower natural gas levels in their homes is control at the source (that's on SoCalGas), and extra ventilation (hard when it's blowing in from outside)

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However, indoor air purifiers can trap mercaptans and VOCs like the ones mentioned above. And since these are the most problematic elements in the equation, anyone who's staying in Porter Ranch would be wise to make use of their purifier voucher. With the right filtration system, they can get rid of the sulfur smell and drastically reduce exposure to harmful compounds. This should alleviate many of the health problems that residents are experiencing, and give them some peace of mind. 

A word of caution: the smell may be removed, but remember, the natural gas itself will still be present. Any Porter Ranch residents who do use a gas air purifier should pair it with a methane detector from their local home goods store to keep track of gas levels in the air. Also, an air purifier will only help in indoor spaces. If residents want to have a patio party, it's going to be with smelly sock odor as a guest that just won't leave. 

What are indoor air purifiers?

Air purification happens via a filtration system. Different filters remove different things from the air. Below is a chart of the most common household pollutants and the filters needed to remove them:

POLLUTANT TYPE EXAMPLE IN HOME FILTER TYPE NEEDED
Airborne Particles Pet dander, pollen, dust, etc. HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air)
Smoke Cigars, fires, etc. Activated Carbon
Micro-Organisms Bacteria, viruses, etc. Germicidal or UV Technology
Odors and Gases Aerosols, pesticides, etc. Activated Carbon
Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs) Ethane, propane, butane, etc. Activated Carbon w/ Special Blend

Any good air purifier will also include a pre-filter. The pre-filter captures most larger particles, like pet hair, from the air before they than reach the more sensitive filters, and thus prevents those main filters from wearing out too quickly. But even with a pre-filter, the more an air purifier is used, and the more pollutants there are in the air, the sooner the filters will have to be changed.

The most convenient air purifiers are room air purifiers. These units generally only weigh around thirty pounds and are portable enough to be moved anywhere in the house. Each purifier is capable of filtering air up to a certain square footage, so different rooms may require different units. There are also whole-house air purifiers that can be installed into a home's existing heating and cooling system, with electrical hard-wiring required. These are more expensive than the single room units and require more time for set-up.

While filtration relevance is the most important deciding factor for air purifiers, they do have other specifications that are important to look for, such as Air Changes Per Hour (ACH). This refers to the number of times the purifier will cycle all of a room's air each hour, with at least 5 cycles being ideal. Also look for Cubic Feet Per Minute (CFM). This is how many cubic feet of air flow through the purifier each minute, and the higher the number the better. Finally, if noise is an issue, look for the unit's operating decibel level (dB), with a lower number being better.

Air purifiers generally use about as much energy as a lightbulb and should be kept running all day, every day for the cleanest air possible.

What is an activated carbon filter?

Activated carbon is carbon with tons of tiny pores all over it. These pores are highly absorbent and they capture pollutants, such as odors and gases, via a process called adsorbtion. Because the activated carbon is so porous, it also has a huge surface area, but is still small enough to fit inside an air purifier unit, which average less than two feet in size. Contaminated air flows into the air purifier and through the carbon filter, where gas and odor molecules are adsorbed, and then the clean air is blown back out into the room. The contaminants remain captured in the carbon, like a sponge, and are not released back into the air. This air flow process (called an exchange) happens over and over, and each time the air gets cleaner. Activated carbon filters also come in special blends to remove specific VOCs. In these filters, the carbon is combined with other materials to expand its filtration capabilities and to oxidize the VOCs. Carbon filters will generally last at least two years depending on usage.

What air purifier should Porter Ranch residents get?

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Most normal homeowners choose simple HEPA air purifiers for their everyday air quality control needs. However, Porter Ranch residents are currently not your normal homeowners, considering there's a leaking natural gas facility in their backyard. While a HEPA air purifier will certainly be helpful in improving their indoor air quality, affected residents absolutely need to be looking at units that have an activated carbon, special blend filter for the mercaptan and other VOCs. If they buy a product without these, they'll be doing nothing to combat the rotten cabbage odor permeating their home. 

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Austin Air Healthmate+ Air Purifier

The best blend for capturing mercaptan and other VOCs is activated carbon with a potassium mixture, such as in the Austin Air Healthmate+ Air Purifier. This model utilizes 15 pounds of activated carbon mixed with potassium iodide to remove VOCs, along with a medical-grade HEPA filter for removal of sub-micron particles. It's also capable of purifying air in spaces up to 1500 square feet, so it would be effective at removing the noxious smell from larger rooms in Porter Ranch homes. This type of air purifier would provide optimal cleaning for the current gas leak issue, along with long-term air filtration even after the gas leak is solved.

Another air purification option for Porter Ranch residents is the Aller Air Airmedic Pro 5 Vocarb Air Purifier. As with the other unit mentioned, this air purifier utilizes an activated carbon filter with a special blend specifically designed to capture VOCs, including those in the natural gas being emitted over the area. In addtion to its 18 lb, 2250-acre activated carbon filter with a "Vocarb" VOC-removal mixture, this model includes a pre-filter and a medical-grade HEPA filter as well.

Any Porter Ranch residents who choose to remain in the area while the natural gas continues to seep out will still be exposed to the smell in spaces where air purifiers aren't used and also when they walk outside. However, if evacuating isn't an option, they can at least immediately improve the air quality within their own homes by using an air purifier specifically designed for gas, odor, and VOC removal. And after this all blows over, the air purifier will continue to provide Porter Ranch homeowners with fresher, cleaner air.