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Porter Ranch & the Dangers of Natural Gas 

Porter Ranch & the Dangers of Natural Gas

The city of Porter Ranch California is undergoing an extensive evacuation because of a natural gas leak in the nearby Aliso Canyon gas facility. Over 80,000 tons of gas has leaked from the site over the past two months, roughly 145,000 pounds every hour. The Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors has declared a state of emergency and thousands of residents are expected to evacuate their homes until the leak can be repaired. The Porter Ranch leak has raised a lot of questions about the dangers of natural gas. How much danger is Porter Ranch in? What are the risks of natural gas?  What can be done about them? 

What is Natural Gas?

Natural gas is a hydrocarbon, a mixture of hydrogen and carbon atoms created when organic material decomposes in oxygen-free environments. Methane is the simplest hydrocarbon and that largest component of natural gas, comprising about 97 percent of natural gas reserves. The remaining three percent is comprised of ethane, propane, butane, and pentane. Natural gas is a common organic byproduct, found most commonly in swamps and in reservoirs deep underground, the remains of plants and animals what got trapped under sedimentary layers and whose organic tissue was broken down by a combination of heat and stress. Natural gas has become an increasingly common energy source in homes and industrial sites all over the United State because it's cheap and burns cleaner than traditional fossil fuels, such as oil.

Is Natural Gas Dangerous?

There are no long-term dangers of natural gas. Natural gas is non-toxic. It contains no poisonous elements that can be absorbed by your bloodstream and will not cause any long-term health problems if it's inhaled. There are some short-term dangers, however. Methane and other natural gases are simple asphyxiates, which means they displace oxygen when they're released into an environment and can lead to death by suffocation if they're allowed to build up in sufficient quantities in a confined space. Oxygen makes up approximately 21 percent of the air we breathe and the minimum level required for human beings is 18 percent. Anything under 16 percent will cause health problems and anything below 10 percent can be deadly. 

Natural gas is odorless and colorless, so the only way to detect it is to add an additional chemical to it that humans can recognize. The most common is called mercaptan, which has a distinctive sulfurous smell, similar to rotten eggs. If you encounter this smell in your home, there's a good chance you may have a gas leak.

Porter Ranch & the Dangers of Natural Gas
Porter Ranch & the Dangers of Natural Gas

Risk of Fire

Fire is by far the biggest danger of natural gas. Methane, ethane, propane, and the other components of natural gas are all extremely flammable and can catch fire at concentrations as low as 5 percent. If you can detect the rotten egg smell in your home, then there is sufficient natural gas to cause an explosion. Natural gas fires are one of the most common mining and oil rig disasters. A well at the Aliso Canyon storage site caught fire in 1975 when sand flying up from the well sparked and ignited the gas. It's so volatile that low-flying planes have been banned from Porter Ranch because their engines might ignite the gas billowing up into the sky.

What to Do If You Have a Gas Leak in Your Home

If you have a gas leak in your home, the first thing to do is to evacuate and dial 911. Do not attempt to locate or repair the leak yourself. Do not activate any electronic appliances inside your house; even a small spark could ignite the gas. If you smoke or burn candles, extinguish them immediately and leave.

Carbon Monoxide Poisoning

The good news is that natural gas leaks are pretty rare. The United States contains hundreds of underground gas storage sites and while leaks do occur, most are sealed almost immediately. Leaks as serious as the on in Porter Ranch are rare and most gas leaks in your home can be avoided as long as your gas lines are properly maintained. A much more persistent danger is carbon monoxide, one of the byproducts produced when you burn natural gas. If a natural gas appliance is not properly ventilated or properly maintained, it can lead to a carbon monoxide buildup in your home. An average of 170 people die each year from carbon monoxide poisoning caused by home consumer products such as stoves, ovens, water heaters, and furnaces. Carbon monoxide is colorless and odorless, which makes it hard to detect. Many people have succumbed without realizing they were suffering from carbon monoxide poisoning.

Symptoms of Carbon Monoxide Poisoning
Shortness of BreathFatigue
Confusion/Mental DisorientationFuzzy Vision
VomitingLoss of Muscular Coordination

The symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are very similar to the flu, without the accompanying fever. If you and other family members begin experiencing them in your house, leave immediately. A few breaths of fresh air will clear your head and relieve the symptoms. Contact the fire department and do not re-enter the building until they have inspected it and given the all-clear.

Dangers of the Porter Ranch Gas Leak

Because natural gas is lighter than air, most of the natural gas from the Porter Ranch leak is escaping harmlessly up into the atmosphere, so the leak poses no immediate danger to the residents of the town. Any natural gas they may have been exposed to is too diluted to pose any risk of asphyxiation or fire. The most immediate consequence is the smell. The gas in Aliso Canyon has already been mixed with mercaptan and most of the evacuations are happening due to the unpleasant smell that's inundated the town. Over 700 people have fled to escape the stench, which can make people quite ill, and many more are expected to follow them shortly. Money has been allocated to create short-term housing in neighboring communities, compensate residents left behind in the town, and organize extra security patrols to prevent burglaries and other property crimes while residents are away.

Long-Term Health Effects

When natural gas is harvested, it often contains impurities such as carbon dioxide, hydrogen sulfide, helium, and nitrogen. There impurities are filtered out when the gas is processed, before it's shipped to your home. Because the gas leak in Porter Ranch is at the well-head, residents in the town are being exposed to some harmful elements not found in home gas leaks, such as radon and benzene, which can cause cancer and anemia when breathed in for extended periods of time. Low-level, short-term exposure is normally not a cause for concern, but because of the expected duration of the leak, officials are carefully monitoring air quality levels in case levels rise due to the leak. As of December 16th, the levels of radon and benzene in Porter Ranch are too low to pose a threat, but any further build-up may trigger additional evacuations.


What Porter Ranch Residents Can Do to Cope

In order to stop the leak, the SoCalGas company is drilling a relief well that will divert gas away from the leak so it can be sealed up with concrete. Conditions are the leak are so volatile repairs have been confined to daylight out of concern the lighting equipment may cause a spark and start a fire. The relief site is a quarter-mile away, far enough so crews can drill non-stop, 24-hours a day. In the meantime, the residents are Porter Ranch are attempting to cope with the gas by installing air purifiers all over their town. SoCalGas has paid for air purifiers to be installed at two nearby elementary schools in order to filter out the smell. Air purifiers trap and absorb gases and odor particles in order to keep the air fresh. Learn more about how air purifiers can help Porter Ranch gas leak residents.