Gas leaks often caused by avoidable damage to utility lines
CHICAGO – Many petroleum accidents that can cost lives and cause injuries involve utilities, and the culprit is often homeowners or construction workers damaging or cutting lines, a US study suggests.
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined data on accidents in seven states from 2010 to 2012 and found 1,369 unintentional petroleum releases responsible for 512 injuries and 36 deaths. Almost half of the incidents were related to utilities, private homes or personal vehicles.
“The actual number of petroleum incidents, injuries and deaths is most likely higher because it is not mandatory to report such releases,” said study author Ayana Anderson, a public health analyst at the CDC.
Anderson noted in the Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report that petroleum was responsible for about 16 percent of all toxic releases, according to a CDC analysis of data from the National Toxic Substances Incidents Program.
Most often, the petroleum accidents were due to equipment failure or human error, which accounted for 52 percent and 40 percent of releases, respectively.
The utilities industry accounted for almost one in four accidents, and most of these were related to natural gas distribution. About 40 percent of releases by utilities involved lines damaged or cut because of errors by contractors, construction workers or residents.
Incidents in private cars and homes were the second most common, and these were the most likely to result in injury. Many of these were due to propane tank explosions, natural gas leaks, or misusing gas by, for example, using gasoline for charcoal grills.
When there were injuries, 54 percent of the time ordinary citizens were hurt, while 31 percent of cases involved employees at companies working with the gas and 12 percent involved firefighters.
Burns were the most common injury, followed by trauma, dizziness, respiratory irritation and headache.
“Education is needed to inform the public about the safe use of petroleum products and how to recognize a gas leak and know what steps to take to prevent explosions and fires,” Anderson said by email.
Before any construction, workers and homeowners can call 811 to ask local utilities to send crews to the site and mark the location of underground lines at no charge, Anderson said.
“People don’t realize that gardening or remodeling can cause a leak, and even the experts don’t always know where the pipelines are located,” said Nathan Phillips, a professor in the department of earth and environment at Boston University.
Gas leaks may not be visible, but additives lend a sulfuric smell like rotten eggs, said Phillips, who wasn’t involved in the study.
“If you smell it, it’s already a potentially dangerous situation and even ringing a doorbell or making a cell phone call or any small spark in an environment that has gas you can smell can lead to combustion,” he said. “You get everyone out of the house first, and then you make the phone call after you’re outside your house.” – Reuters