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Natural gas detectors could be lifesavers

Brian C. Rittmeyer
| Thursday, March 24, 2005

Bev Gartner believes a small device could have prevented the deaths of seven relatives and saved her from living with painful, disfiguring burns.

Gartner, 50, of Iowa City, Iowa, survived a propane-fueled house explosion on Labor Day 1999 at her sister's home in Richland, Iowa, that killed her parents, three sisters, a brother-in-law and a 6-year-old niece. She suffered burns to 70 percent of her body.

She since has been on a mission to urge families to have natural gas and propane detectors in their homes. But hearing that two Moon teenagers were burned this month when their home filled with natural gas and exploded is a reminder that her mission has not yet been accomplished.

"We didn't know (detectors) existed until this all happened to us. The only true way anybody can be safe is if they have these things in their homes," Gartner said. "The one mission we have is to keep another family from going through what we've gone through."

Robert and Margaret Rateau's home on Bertley Ridge Drive in Moon exploded shortly after their two children, Marc, 18, and Chelsea, 14, returned home from school on March 16. Marc was in serious condition Wednesday in the burn unit at Mercy Hospital, Uptown. Investigators believe the house filled with gas after a 2-inch Columbia Gas line in front of the house was ruptured by a contractor boring a cable conduit for Comcast.

Chelsea Rateau told Moon police that she and her brother smelled a strange odor in their house. A substance -- ethyl mercaptan -- is added to natural gas to give it a rotten-egg odor and alert people to the danger of leaking gas.

Two companies -- MTI Industries Inc. in Volo, Ill., and Kidde, in Mebane, N.C. -- make detectors that set off an alarm when natural gas or propane concentrations reach 25 percent of the level needed to explode. Roughly the size of a package of index cards, the devices cost between $50 and $60 each.

Although the devices have been around since the 1980s, they are largely unknown and hard to find, said MTI Industries marketing manager David Buddingh.

The detectors are required in recreational vehicles and in Japan, but only one county in the United States -- Polk County, Iowa -- requires them in homes, Buddingh said.

"The gas companies don't like to talk about it. They like to talk about carbon monoxide. That's after they've gotten the gas in the home, and that's the appliance manufacturer's problem," Buddingh said.

Utilities teach customers about the odor added to gas, advise contractors to call before digging and recommend carbon monoxide detectors, but do not promote natural gas detectors, Columbia Gas and Equitable Gas representatives said. Equitable spokesman David Spigelmyer said his company does not advocate the devices because of their cost.

"When used properly, natural gas is one of the safest and most economical fuels available to the public," Columbia Gas spokesman Robert Boulware said.

Such detectors are not necessary except for those with an impaired sense of smell, said Daphne Magnuson, spokeswoman for the American Gas Association of Washington, D.C., which represents companies that deliver natural gas.

"If there is a natural gas leak, you're going to pick up on that odor of rotten eggs," she said.

Soil or gravel may break down the odor from mercaptan as natural gas travels into homes from broken lines, Buddingh said. About 20 percent of the population can't smell the odor, and people older than 60 with a diminished sense of smell might not be able to detect it, he said.

"The reality is, if you're not in the same proximity of a leak, (the odor) does you no good," said John Andres, vice president of technology for Kidde. "Depending on how sensitive your nose is, you may not be able to detect a leak before a hazardous condition is present."

Pennsylvania's statewide building code requires hard-wired smoke detectors in new homes, said Charlie Belgie, Moon's fire chief and fire marshal. Carbon monoxide detectors are not required by law, but are recommended, he said.

"If we can get smoke detectors and carbon monoxide detectors in, we think we did a good job," Belgie said.

Belgie could not say what detectors, if any, were in the Rateau home.

If a natural gas detector had been there, Gartner said, "It would have told them, 'Don't go in the house.'"

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