Robert Howarth PhD: Degassify Our Cities

September 1, 2022

Harvard School of Public Health:

Every day, millions of Americans rely on natural gas to power appliances such as kitchen stoves, furnaces, and water heaters, but until now very little data existed on the chemical makeup of the gas once it reaches consumers.

new study finds that natural gas used in homes throughout the Greater Boston area contains varying levels of volatile organic chemicals that when leaked are known to be toxic, linked to cancer, and can form secondary health-damaging pollutants such as particulate matter and ozone. The research by the Center for Climate, Health, and the Global Environment at Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health, PSE Healthy Energy, Atmospheric and Environmental Research (AER), Gas Safety Inc., Boston University, and Home Energy Efficiency Team (HEET) was published in Environmental Science & Technology.

“It is well-established that natural gas is a major source of methane that’s driving climate change,” said Drew Michanowicz, Visiting Scientist at Harvard Chan C-CHANGE and Senior Scientist at PSE Healthy Energy.“But most people haven’t really considered that our homes are where the pipeline ends and that when natural gas leaks it can contain health-damaging air pollutants in addition to climate pollutants.”

Researchers conducted a hazard identification study, which evaluated whether air pollutants are present in unburned natural gas, but did not evaluate human exposure to those pollutants. Between December 2019 and May 2021, researchers collected over 200 unburned natural gas samples from 69 unique kitchen stoves and building pipelines across Greater Boston. From these samples, researchers detected 296 unique chemical compounds, 21 of which are federally designated as hazardous air pollutants. They also measured the concentration of odorants in consumer-grade natural gas – the chemicals that give gas its characteristic smell – and found that leaks containing about 20 parts per million methane may not have enough odorant for people to detect them. The samples were taken from the territories of Eversource Gas, National Grid, and the former Columbia Gas, who together provide service to 93% of Massachusetts gas customers.

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