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Natural Gas Smell
August 15, 2013 10:13 PM   Subscribe

I did something colossally stupid this evening: Put up some pasta on the stove and then fell promptly asleep for a little while on the couch. Woke up to a terrible smell of natural gas. Found the water in the pot had spilled over and doused the flame of the burner it was cooking on. With the gas on high. It was probably like that for about 10 minutes or so. And now, four hours later, the house still has a strong-ish odor. Here is my question: does the smell indicate that gas is still present in the house, and if so, should I be concerned for the health and safety of my small children, who are sleeping a hallway away from the kitchen?

In a perfect stereotype of Murphy's law, our CO alarm died on Monday. I haven't replaced it yet.

The kids are sleeping and seem to be breathing normally. Their room does not smell like gas. My wife complained of nausea and a headache when it first happened, but that went away within half an hour. She's now asleep.

I have been running our three wall sleeve air conditioners. Have two windows open for airflow (but there's no breeze outside, so that's kind of useless.) It just occurred to me to put the stove hood vent on high, so that's now also running. But I still smell the gas. I pulled the stove away from the wall to check the gas pipe connection. No breaks or leaks as far as I can tell. All four burners light normally, so the water didn't douse the pilot lights.

Even though I flooded the damned kitchen and house with gas like an idiot, shouldn't the smell have dissipated relatively quickly? Is there any chance my kids could be in danger? How much gas is cause for concern? Would the symptoms of CO poisoning wake them up? Should I wake them and see if they're okay? Am I being paranoid by worrying about this?
posted by zarq to Health & Fitness (13 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
 
Probably you are fine! But nonetheless, call the gas company, and they will send out a guy with a meter to prove that you are fine. The stuff that makes natural gas stinky (it's an additive, natural gas is by nature odorless) is INCREDIBLY persistent.
posted by KathrynT at 10:20 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


Is it propane or natural gas? Propane is heavier than air and will pool. However, you likely have natural gas. I am not too sure about CO, but that is typically produced when fuel is "burned", so your kids are probably fine. You yourself would feel CO poisoning first, and it does go away (a friend had it from the exhaust of his car). You should be okay. Take it easy.
posted by KokuRyu at 10:23 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


It's my understanding that you only need to worry about CO when there's a flame, i.e., it is a byproduct of actual fire, so if your burner wasn't lit, you should be good. The gas smell is added to natural gas precisely so you know it's present so you don't light matches until it dissipates; you are at a risk of explosions but not of CO poisoning. CO is odorless, which is why we have alarms for it.

Call the gas company anyway, for your own peace of mind, and get that CO alarm fixed.

Again, I am not an authority on this, just a nervous nelly who did a bunch of reading when something similar happened to me. If someone shows up in this thread who sounds like she knows what she's talking about I happily defer to her.
posted by town of cats at 10:24 PM on August 15, 2013 [2 favorites]


The CO is really only from incomplete combustion so you don't need to worry about that, since you had no flame. The reason to be worried is if the gas builds up it can be a combustion hazard--too much gas and even the tiniest spark could cause it to ignite. I can't comment on the likelihood of enough gas being built up after 10 minutes, but if you had windows or doors open then the gas had someplace to go.

According to this technical guidance, "Gas is intentionally odorized so that the average person can perceive it at a concentration well below the explosive range," so just because you smelled it doesn't mean that it's necessarily a big problem--it just means it did its job to let you know that gas had leaked.

As KathrynT advises, if you call the gas company, they'll come out and reassure you.
posted by gubenuj at 10:45 PM on August 15, 2013 [3 favorites]


KokuRyu: "Is it propane or natural gas? Propane is heavier than air and will pool."

Natural gas!

town of cats: "The gas smell is added to natural gas precisely so you know it's present so you don't light matches until it dissipates; you are at a risk of explosions but not of CO poisoning. "

gubenuj: "The CO is really only from incomplete combustion so you don't need to worry about that, since you had no flame. The reason to be worried is if the gas builds up it can be a combustion hazard--too much gas and even the tiniest spark could cause it to ignite."

Heh. If something was going to go boom I'm guessing it would have already, since some schmuck (me) has already obsessively lit all the burners on the kitchen stove at least half a dozen times to make sure the pilot lights weren't out.

Will call the gas company immediately. Thank you, KathrynT. As always, you're a welcome voice of grounding sanity.
posted by zarq at 10:52 PM on August 15, 2013


KathrynT is right, but do post an update 'cause now we're all worried.
posted by trip and a half at 11:59 PM on August 15, 2013 [1 favorite]


Are you feeling any symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning -- headache, nausea, etc.?
posted by Jacqueline at 1:21 AM on August 16, 2013


All of this worry over CO is because most places used to make and pipe in Coal gas instead of Natural gas. The people who've killed themselves by blowing out the pilot light and sticking their head in the oven were before the switch to natural gas. You could still die from inhalation of too much gas, but only from oxygen displacement and not as quickly as when it would actually contain CO.

If you've already turned the burner on then I would just open all of your windows and if you have them run fans blowing out of one side and in from the other to push everything out.
posted by koolkat at 1:52 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


They add Ethyl or Methyl mercaptan to natural gas so you can smell when it builds up. Mostly so you don't strike a match and explode yourself. From memory the smell lasts longer than the gas does on account of mercaptan being a bit heavier than natural gas and not dissipating as fast. If you open the place up and let a breeze through it should clear the smell.

A ten minute leak isn't going to do anyone any long term harm. Serious exposure comes coupled with nausea and vomiting (due to the mercaptan), if things are at that point, that's when you get the hell out. Since you've stopped the leak and otherwise feeling fine, you're probably in the clear.

Second the posters saying the CO isn't a concern at this point since you weren't burning anything, but agree that if in doubt re: continued leaks, call the gas company.
posted by analoguezen at 1:56 AM on August 16, 2013


I wouldn't worry. The immediate concern with gas is poisoning (unlit gas) or carbon monoxide (inefficient burning and/or exhaust gas exit to the outside). Carbon monoxide isn't an issue because you weren't burning the gas inefficiently.

If you're past the initial worry, which you are, then the next steps are to be careful about lighting naked flames or sparks from electrical items.

I'd air the space well and refrain from using it. It will dissipate. 10 minutes is not that much gas to get rid of. I wouldn't use air con though. I'd use a fan. You want the air to be circulating and out of the window. The additive you smell is a) smelly and b) potent for a reason so it will hang around a bit.

Gas leaks sound like a red herring to me. Your issue starts with a pot boiling over and extinguishing a flame. Unless you suspected a gas leak before there is no reason why you should suspect one now.
posted by MuffinMan at 2:23 AM on August 16, 2013


since some schmuck (me) has already obsessively lit all the burners on the kitchen stove at least half a dozen times to make sure the pilot lights weren't out.

Came in to say that exact thing. Just for reference for future, if you have even the slightest suspicion that there is gas in an area, do NOT light anything at all, nor switch on or off any appliances. They often produce a small spark when the contacts are made or broken that can ignite gas. Even turning on the air conditioner units and the hood fan was a risk.

Windows, doors, more windows and doors first. Only after that point (after a short time) can you start switching electrics about. Waft stuff around with a towel if there is no breeze to be sure.
posted by Brockles at 4:46 AM on August 16, 2013 [5 favorites]


OK, so everyone is fine. I called Con Ed last night, and they walked me through what had happened and told me I probably didn't have to worry about a leak. They did send someone out this morning, though, just to be sure.

I opened all the windows (we don't have any standing fans in the house) and left all the vents and air conditioners on high before bed. Woke up this morning to no smell. Kids were their usual selves at 6am, complaining about how cold the house was. :)

Thank you, everyone for the advice and reassurance. And yes, next time I smell gas, I will definitely NOT light anything on the stove. Or run appliances. Or turn lights on and off. Etc.
posted by zarq at 5:48 AM on August 16, 2013 [2 favorites]


Yes, I definitely didn't use the word "leak" appropriately. MuffinMan correctly points out this wasn't a "leak" in the usual sense of the word, rather an unintended "release". As soon as you turned the burner to "off" gas stopped being released into the room and thus you effectively stopped the problem.
posted by gubenuj at 7:36 AM on August 16, 2013 [1 favorite]


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