Natural gas provides heat and energy throughout the country but gas can be exceptionally dangerous either through its explosive powers or through its products of incomplete combustion–primarily carbon monoxide. Gas which is distributed through aging pipelines in many areas of the country can erupt with explosive force and destroy lives and buildings in seconds. Nationally, over 83,000 miles of distribution lines are untreated to prevent corrosion and are aging. Many of these mains are located in urban or heavily populated areas.
Congress passed a law in 2002 which required utility companies to inspect aging lines. Unfortunately there are not nearly enough inspectors to supervise the work being done by the utilities and thus the work is largely left to them without government oversight. Most of the distribution lines or gas mains are made of steel and some of the older ones are made of cast iron. Both are subject to corrosion. As there are many miles of pipeline, much of it over 50 years old, the job of prioritizing the inspections and repairs generally falls to the local gas company. The failure to properly inspect and coat or replace aging lines can be negligent particularly where those lines are located in heavily populated areas. In the frenzy to cut the federal deficit it is unlikely that significantly more inspectors will be funded even though they are needed. When an explosion occurs the remedy may lie in a civil lawsuit for damages. Hopefully such a remedy will provide compensation to those injured or killed and provide incentive to utility companies to raise the priority of gas line inspection and replacement in populated areas.
Once gas is burned, if it is not burned completely because of a lack of oxygen necessary for complete combustion or because of dirty burners, clogged chimneys, cracked furnaces and other problems, carbon monoxide may infiltrate a home. Everyone knows that carbon monoxide in sufficient quantities will cause death. But prolonged exposure to less than lethal amounts of carbon monoxide from furnaces, water heaters even vehicles parked in abutting garages may cause damage to the brain and heart. This damage is often exhibited by severe headaches, flu like symptoms, short term memory loss, severe fatigue, neurological deficits and many other symptoms. Unfortunately, many doctors do not associate the symptoms their patients are demonstrating with carbon monoxide unless multiple people have the same symptoms, which is often not the case, or the story of a malfunctioning heating appliance is brought to their attention. When that happens the victim generally returns home or to the source of exposure and is constantly re-exposed until the problem is discovered. Landlords, builders, furnace and hot water heater installers are often negligent in failing to properly install or maintain their gas burning appliances and can be liable for serious injuries to people chronically exposed to carbon monoxide. People who believe that they may have been exposed to carbon monoxide and are experiencing symptoms such as severe headaches should go to the emergency room immediately and ask to be tested for carboxy hemoglobin. A test performed promptly after leaving the source of exposure will be most likely to produce evidence of the exposure so that doctors will know what to treat and the investigation into the cause can take place.