Gas, the History, Benefits and how to stay Safe?
In Support of National Gas Safety Week 2013
This is the last of a series of five short articles sponsored by fireplace.co.uk. This series of articles have been released daily throughout the week in support of National Gas Safety Week. The main body of this article will look at how safe a fuel natural gas is and how you as gas user can help your self to keep you and your family safe by following simple advice.
Natural gas has been known of for centuries and represented a major threat and problem within the early mining industry. Natural gas seeped from coal faces and was the cause of many underground fires and explosions. Natural gas is frequently seen being burnt off oil fields. The first natural gas was imported for commercial use into Britain in liquefied form from The Gulf of Mexico in 1959. Some year’s later (1965) large gas fields were found off the coast of North East Britain with the largest gas field, up until then, ever found off the coast of Holland. In light of this the decision was made to change Britain’s gas supply from coal or town gas to natural gas. The great change over started in May 1967 and was completed ten years later with the conversion or replacement of over forty million appliance with an estimated cost of £563 m.
There are many benefits to the use of natural gas over the old town or coal gas. It is cleaner both environmentally and in its use. It is said that natural gas is the cleanest of all the fossil fuels when used in a modern well maintained appliance as the combustion process is so good very few waste products are released back into the environment or home. The blue flame seen when natural gas is ignited is a sign of a near perfect combustion. Anything less than a blue clean flame should be interpreted as something wrong and taken as a warning sign you need to act upon immediately! The appliance should be switched off, the windows opened and a Gas Safe engineer link called to inspect the appliance immediately. For more information on how to stay safe using gas, including the signs that an appliance is malfunctioning and clinical symptoms link Unknown silent… to look out for see our previous articles released this week or follow the relevant links in this document. Natural gas is capable of producing temperatures in excess of one thousand degrees Celsius this makes it an ideal fuel to heat our homes. Natural gas, the product piped into our homes does not in itself contain carbon monoxide like the old coal or town gas but carbon monoxide can and is produced as a waste product of a poor inefficient burn so please follow the manufactures maintenance guidelines for your appliance/s, invest in audible carbon monoxide alarms and whilst you are there, if you don’t already have them, smoke alarms.
Natural gas is viewed as a very safe domestic fuel source (See table 1). The statistics show that fatalities linked to natural gas are very low fluctuating between 17 and 18 a year with only 4 recorded fatalities in 2012. The figure for other exposure for the year 2012 is either missing or was none for that year unfortunately we do not know which. Leaving aside the hidden figures of misdiagnosis and under reporting for carbon monoxide poisoning for the time being it is carbon monoxide poisoning rather than fires and explosions which accounts for the largest proportion of fatalities linked to the use of gas. The evidence shows that the number of fatalities due to fires and explosions attributable to the use of gas remains reasonably constant at two or three per annum. The same can be said of the consistency for number of incidents although the figures do show a greater degree of fluctuation between the years. The number of non fatalities due to fires and explosions through the use of gas does seem to show an upward trend but if the year 2010/11 is excluded they again seem reasonably static with a mean average of 34 and a median of 36 the latter figure includes the year 2010/11. There does seem to be an upward trend in the number of non fatalities relating to carbon monoxide poisoning whether this is an indication of better diagnosis and reporting due higher levels of awareness by health professional and the general public as result of greater campaigning within the industry we can not possibly ascertain from the figures alone. We can not either comment on the statistical significance or statistical strength of any of the relationships apparent within the figures due to such small numbers and can only offer a narrative of the data as it is.
As table 2 indicates those at most risk from using gas as a fuel source, from the greater risk of carbon monoxide poisoning rather than fires and explosions are owner occupiers. The other types of tenure often have a legal requirement to ensure their appliances are regularly maintained, checked and serviced. Advice which we know is often ignored in the owner occupier housing sector. Gas leaks and exposure to carbon monoxide are more commonly found in terraced properties than in any other.
style of property. The majority of incidents involve appliances fitted with open, individual or natural draught flues. Central heating appliances are associated with most fatalities and incidents of non fatal exposure to carbon monoxide. After investigation by the appropriate authorities the cause of most of the incidents relate to lack of servicing, flue and terminal points. Flue and ventilation faults are common place in many domestic incidents. It is clear that the pattern of risk has changed from dwellings of multi occupancy to owner occupier properties.
Unfortunately natural gas leaks can occur within the home without the occupier being aware that there is a gas leak. Whilst some individual are very sensitive to the smell of natural gas others can not smell it all. Understanding some of the warning signs can save your life (see associated articles for similar advice on Carbon Monoxide poisoning and their links above). Along with headaches and dizziness you may experience feeling of sickness all of which are associated with natural gas poisoning. These symptoms may become more intense during the winter time or in garages and basements where the ventilation is restricted. Irregular breathing is another classic symptom and should not be ignored. This symptom can particularly effect the very young and elderly and is caused as the natural gas depletes the oxygen levels in the body and environment. Unfortunately if the oxygen level in the body drops by just 12% unconsciousness and death can follow. As the oxygen levels in the body deplete the body tries to take oxygen from other fluids within the body leading to classic signs of dehydration. Exposure to natural gas can also lead to feelings of drowsiness and fatigue. Long term exposure to a natural gas leak it is claimed can lead to a range of long term health problems to include epilepsy, pneumonia, memory loss, depression, claustrophobia, seizures, and heart problems. Do not confuse the signs of poisoning from natural gas with carbon monoxide poisoning as the experience and symptoms are very similar but a gas leak will not set of a carbon monoxide alarm.
If you suffer from any of these symptoms and believe they may be caused by a gas leak do not ignore them, turn the appliance off and leave the premises or area immediately. Other signs to look out for are is your appliance or gas piping emitting a hissing sound or you may be able to smell the smell of rotten eggs.
If you suspect a gas leak notify British Gas on the free emergency contact number 0800 111 999 but do not use the house phone or attempt to use a mobile within the area of the suspected leak. Avoid using anything electrical that might produce a spark, including light switches, in the vicinity off the leak. Do not attempt to find the leak, leave it to the professionals, and just vacate the property or area. Under no circumstances whatsoever attempt to repair the gas leak yourself. Obviously do not use matches, lighters, smoke a cigarette or introduce any form of naked flame to the vicinity of the suspected leak. Do not try to re-entre the premises or area under any circumstances until a qualified gas engineer has confirmed the area to be safe. Finally do not attempt to extinguish a natural gas fire.
To put things into perspective risk comparator data shows that the annual risks of dying per head of UK population are as shown below. You are far more likely to die as the result of a road accident, or even if you decide to avoid the risks of our busy roads and stay at home and catch up with a few jobs. In fact you are more likely to be struck by lightning than die_0 in a natural gas explosion. The data clearly shows the greater risk in the domestic use of natural gas is as previously discussed in this article and the other articles released this week is from the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning.
• CO poisoning from incomplete combustion (Gas), 1 in 1.8m
• an internal natural gas explosion, 1 in 11m
• all types of natural gas related incident, 1 in 1.4m
• a road accident, 1 in 15,700
• accident in home or garden, 1 in 15,000
• electrocutions in the home, 1 in 170,000
• cancer, 1 in 360
• struck by lightning, 1 in 10 million
Even so you are still more likely to die from electrocution than carbon monoxide poisoning but that is no excuse to be complacent, get those alarms fitted and test weekly. Make sure your appliances are checked in accordance with manufactures instructions, your flues are swept annually by a qualified and registered sweep. Make sure all works such as installation and servicing etc are carried out by a Safe Gas registered engineer. Do remember all of the figures in the tables 1 and 2 include the irresponsible households who do not carry out these simple recommendations and expose themselves and their families to the risk of gas leaks and carbon monoxide positioning. Be smart, be vigilant and be safe!
By Phil Cleaver
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