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Does methane pose significant health and public safety hazards?—A review
Ian J. Duncan1
1Bureau of Economic Geology, Jackson School of Geological Sciences, The University of Texas at Austin, Austin, Texas; [email protected]
It has been suggested by some that methane contamination of water wells is the main negative consequence of the development of natural gas resources. Concurrently, speculation in academic white papers and in the press that methane may be toxic has resulted in public concern. In northern Pennsylvania, methane being released from groundwater and entering homes (so-called stray gas) has become a focus of this concern. This phenomenon was widespread decades before shale gas development was initiated. This paper reviews the available literature on the safety and health hazards associated with natural gas. It concludes that the risks to homeowners are highest from flash fires occurring in methane oxygen gas clouds at relatively low methane concentrations collecting in poorly ventilated, confined areas of houses such as basements. Such risks can be mitigated effectively and in most cases at minimal cost. Methane can result in death from hypoxia (lack of oxygen) but only at methane levels in the air of more than 60%, which are unlikely to develop except under exceptional circumstances. There is no evidence that low to moderate levels of exposure to methane in air have any toxic effect on humans, and evidence for such effects at very high levels (already fatal because of hypoxia) is equivocal. It seems likely that methane at concentrations at least as high as 2.5% may well have positive health benefits for some diseases.
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