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The Dangers of an Unknown Gas Leak

Close-up on professional plumber checking a boiler

If you’re a fan of the TV sitcom Community, with its “six seasons and a movie!” catchcry, you’ll likely know that season four is often referred to as the “gas leak” year. It’s the season that saw creator Dan Harmon fired, a new showrunner take over, and the general tone and quality of the series arguably dip as a result. When Harmon was reinstated as showrunner for season five, he addressed the reaction in that season’s opening episode, with characters in the show referring to the previous school year as the gas leak year. 

Though the term was used as a joke in the show, the ramifications of a real gas leak are no laughing matter. And when it’s an unknown gas leak, the dangers can be even more significant and severe. Let’s take a look at some of them. 

Wait … How Can a Gas Leak Be Unknown? 

Typically, the natural gas commonly used in homes for cooking and heating is colourless and odourless. But before it is piped into the home for domestic use, natural gas has a harmless odorant added to it. This chemical, called Ethyl Mercaptan, boasts a rotten egg-like smell that makes detecting a leak significantly easier.

However, even with the odorant infusion, detecting a gas leak might not always be easy. Firstly, you need to actually be at home to detect it. If the gas is leaking all day while you’re at work, or if you return from a vacation to a home that has had gas subtly leaking away for days or weeks on end, the risk can be significant.

There is also the possibility that you might be less likely to detect a natural gas leak if your sense of smell is compromised at the time, usually due to a cold or flu.

Then, There’s Carbon Monoxide …

Though natural gas has the benefit of the added odorant to make it easily detectable, the byproduct that comes from the incomplete combustion of natural gas carbon monoxide doesn’t afford us that same courtesy. 

Like natural gas, carbon monoxide (CO) is colourless and odourless. Unlike natural gas, however, it remains odourless. This makes it a more insidious hazard that can cause illness and even death if enough is inhaled. By law, any appliances or fixtures in the home that can produce carbon monoxide must be flued to redirect that CO out of the house. However, carbon monoxide leaks can occur, which is where they can become a problem if not detected in time. 

 Professional plumber checking a boiler

So … About Those Dangers

Gas leaks in or around the home present a number of dangers, both to your personal health and well-being and the safety of your home. Whether you’ve already detected the leak or you’re just not quite at that point yet, here are some of the more common dangers you might encounter.

  • A gas leak can be a health hazard – insidious gas leaks in the home that aren’t detected straight away can result in a build up of gas over a sustained period of time. As the gas accumulates, it replaces the natural oxygen content in the immediate atmosphere. This can lead to people in the home experiencing breathing problems as well as other problems such as nausea, headaches, fatigue and dizziness. If you inhale larger volumes of gas, those problems can become significantly worse and include loss of consciousness or even death. 
  • A gas leak can cause a house fire or explosion – a gas leak left undetected can cause a fire or even an explosion if it comes into contact with a flammable material. All it takes is a single spark, maybe from a gas stove, a cigarette lighter or a sparking powerpoint, for the gas to ignite and cause serious damage. 
  • A gas leak can be destructive to plants and vegetation – a leak of natural gas into the soil and through to plants can result in a condition called chlorosis. This condition causes plants to lose their colour and eventually kill the plant cells. The roots become starved of oxygen, which leads to root asphyxiation and a resultant swift drying up of the plant.  
  • A gas leak can be an environmental hazard – one of the predominant ingredients of natural gas is methane. Being a greenhouse gas, methane is a key contributor to overall atmospheric warming. Due to its potency, it can be even more harmful to the environment than carbon dioxide. So when a natural gas leak occurs, the release of methane into the atmosphere adds to the global warming problem. This, in turn, can contribute to everything from heatwaves, droughts, flooding and other destructive weather events. 
  • A gas leak can be damaging to your pets – just as natural gas and carbon monoxide leaks can be dangerous for humans, they can be potentially fatal for your pets. As they are typically smaller in size compared to humans, domestic animals are more likely to succumb to the effects of poisoning from a gas leak. Should your pets show signs of lethargy, breathing problems or seizures, they could be presenting symptoms of poisoning from a gas leak. Should you find a leak in the house, get yourself and any pets out of your home as soon as possible, and get them to a vet. 

If you determine that you have a gas leak in your home, there are certain things you will need to do to minimise any further risk to you and your property.

What To Do When You Detect a Gas Leak

If it is safe to do so, locate the source of the gas leak – either with your sense of smell or listening for a hissing sound that comes from gas escaping – and shut off the appliance or gas bottle that has caused the problem. Again, if safe, open up any windows and then evacuate the house (don’t forget to take the pets!). 

From a safe distance, call 1800 GAS LEAK (1800 427 532) to have it seen by a trained professional. And, of course, if you find yourself and your home in the midst of a fire as a result of the gas leak, get a safe distance from your home and call 000 immediately.