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How safe is natural gas?

Is natural gas safe?
Is natural gas safe?
Chris Lomas/Taxi/Getty Images

Americans have been using natural gas for decades. It fuels homes and factories, powers our appliances and goes into making products like antifreeze, medicine and explosives. Since 1949, its use and domestic production have risen each year.

But is it safe? Let's investigate.

Natural Gas Pros

Did you know that natural gas is naturally colorless, odorless and tasteless? The rotten-egg smell you associate with it comes from mercaptan, a nasty odorant added at processing plants. Because gas is so explosive, the government requires that mercaptan be added so people can detect gas leaks. Calling gas hugely explosive is a bit misleading, though. It explodes only when air and gas meet in just the right proportions. Probably if you smell a leak, it'll just rise to the surface without causing a scene -- though you should still report it. According to the American Gas Association, safety-related incidents have decreased 29 percent since 1988 -- even though natural gas usage has risen 20 percent.

Natural gas emissions also give off less atmosphere-harming carbon dioxide than any other fossil fuel, including coal and petroleum. True, natural gas is composed chiefly of methane, a stronger air pollutant than CO2. But methane makes up only 3 percent of U.S. air pollution, and not even half of that comes from gas leaks. The government regulates drill and refinement companies, which prevent leaks by burning off excess gas. So strictly in terms of air pollution, gas is greenest.

On the next page, learn about the cons of using natural gas.