Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of respiratory conditions that can be caused by smoking and inhaling toxic fumes. According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it’s the third leading cause of death worldwide.

Burning propane and other fuels for cooking and heating can cause pollution inside your home, especially if your home isn’t well ventilated.

When propane is burned, it releases carbon monoxide, nitric dioxide, and other toxic chemicals. These chemicals can all increase the risk of COPD. If you already have COPD, they cause a flare-up of your symptoms.

Keep reading to learn more about propane and COPD, as well as how to reduce your exposure to harmful chemicals from this heating source.

Only about 5 percent of homes in the United States are heated with propane — also called liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). LPG is primarily used in the Northeast and in rural areas.

But despite the limited use of propane in the United States, there’s substantial evidence that breathing in small particles called particulate matter (PM) from air pollution, including the particles that come from burning propane fuel, is a risk factor for COPD.

These particles form as a byproduct of burning fuels for heating or cooking. They’re small enough that they can penetrate your lungs deeply.

Continuous exposure to these molecules can cause inflammation and damage to your lungs. This, in turn, can lead to COPD or cause COPD symptoms to flare up.

Harmful chemicals in propane heat

Propane produces less particulate matter than biomass fuels, like charcoal and wood. But propane can still produce other chemicals, such as nitric dioxide and carbon monoxide, that can damage your lungs. Nitric dioxide is especially associated with the development and worsening of COPD.

A 2020 study found that improved household ventilation was associated with a much lower risk of death from all causes — including respiratory diseases. This suggests that even clean cooking fuels, like propane, can damage your lungs, even if they’re less harmful than biomass fuels.

And a 2021 study found that nitric dioxide levels were significantly lower in the kitchens of homes in Peru that used propane compared with homes that used biomass fuel. But they also found that 69 percent of kitchens still had nitric dioxide levels higher than the WHO guidelines.

Propane isn’t toxic when inhaled. But over time, propane can displace oxygen in your airways and make it harder to breathe.

People with COPD may be more sensitive to changes in the air than people who don’t have COPD.

Low levels of propane exposure can cause:

In high amounts, propane exposure can cause more severe symptoms. Seek emergency medical attention if you experience:

Propane exposure can potentially contribute to a worsening of your COPD symptoms.

If you experience a COPD flare-up, follow any action plans you’ve created with your doctor. Treatment of your COPD symptoms may include one or more of the following:

  • using your rescue inhaler to relax the muscles in your airways
  • taking oral corticosteroids to reduce inflammation in your lungs
  • using an oxygen tank to get more oxygen into your lungs

If these treatments don’t provide relief, call 911 or seek emergency medical attention right away.

Signs of a propane leak

If propane leaks, it will quickly evaporate and make a cloud of gas. It can catch fire if it encounters a spark or fire. Here are some tips for identifying a propane leak:

  • Be aware of any unusual smells. An odorant is added to propane to help you detect a potential leak. The smell is often described as rotten eggs or rotten cabbage.
  • Listen for unusual sounds. Leaking gas may make a hissing noise near the leak in your gas line.
  • Look for damaged connections in your gas line. This is especially important if you smell or hear anything unusual.

If you suspect a gas leak, don’t touch any electrical appliances or anything that may cause a spark. Leave your building with the door open and call 911 or the gas company from a safe location.

Was this helpful?

Electricity is the cleanest energy source you can use for your home that doesn’t cause any household air pollution. Propane and natural gas are considered clean burning energy sources, but they still create some pollution during use.

Biomass fuels cause the most household pollution. But charcoal may be a cleaner burning source than wood, coal, and animal dung.

No matter which fuel source you’re using, make sure your kitchen is well ventilated when cooking with any fuel that creates smoke, gas, or any other kind of indoor air pollution. This can help minimize the amount of particulate matter and other chemicals you breathe that may trigger COPD symptoms.

Breathing in pollution caused by burning fuels in the home can cause COPD and may worsen existing symptoms. Propane produces less household air pollution than other biomass fuels, but it still produces enough particulate matter to be a possible cause for concern.

You’re at especially high risk of breathing in high amounts of propane pollution if you cook in a poorly ventilated location. Try to minimize air pollution by keeping your home and kitchen well-ventilated.

If you experience a flare-up of your COPD symptoms, follow your COPD action plan and seek emergency attention if home treatments don’t provide relief.