Why Are Gas Stoves Under Fire?
If you were online at all last week, you probably encountered conversations about gas stoves. The sudden stove discourse was sparked by a comment made by a commissioner on the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) to a Bloomberg reporter, in which the commissioner discussed plans to regulate gas stoves. Those comments morphed via repetition into inaccurate rumors of an impending ban on stoves fueled by “natural gas,” or methane, currently used in around 38% of US homes. The CPSC later clarified that the agency was “researching gas emissions in stoves and exploring new ways to address health risks,” but was not looking to ban gas stove use.
That said, studies have found that gas stoves are a major source of indoor air pollution, and can emit nitrogen oxides that have been found to exacerbate asthma symptoms. Last summer, the American Medical Association adopted a resolution informing physicians of the stoves’ link to asthma. A report published in December estimates that over 12% of childhood asthma cases may be attributable to gas stove emissions.
The stove debate flares beyond asthma, however. Some municipalities, including New York City, are moving to phase out the use of natural gas in new construction for reasons related to climate change. And Washington state has put in place rules mandating the use of electric heat (with fossil fuel-derived heating allowed as a backup option) in new construction this year.
Rebecca Leber, senior reporter covering climate at Vox, joins Ira to explain the heated words over gas stove use, and how they fit into a larger battle over fossil fuel usage and climate change.
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Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate for Vox, in Washington, DC. Previously, she was Climate and Environment Reporter for Mother Jones.
IRA FLATOW: This is Science Friday. I’m Ira Flatow. Later in the hour, a look ahead to the next generation of vaccines and exploring what gives a violin its sound, including how to 3D print a plastic, good-sounding violin.
But first, if you were online all last week, you probably heard at least some discussion of gas stoves. A study linked the use of gas stoves to over 12% of childhood asthma in the US. That’s similar to the level caused by secondhand smoke. But the issue of gas stoves goes a lot deeper. And we thought this would be a good time to untangle all the information and misinformation you’ve been getting.
Joining me now to talk about the issue is Rebecca Leber, senior reporter at Vox. She covers climate in Washington, DC. And she’s been reporting on stoves and the gas industry for years. Welcome back to Science Friday, Rebecca.
REBECCA LEBER: Hello.
IRA FLATOW: All right, let’s get into this. What happened last week with the stoves?
REBECCA LEBER: So the Consumer Product Safety Commission said that it was going to look into the risks around gas stoves and consider regulation. This wasn’t particularly new. They announced this in December. But what I think changed this for a lot of people is a commissioner for the CPSC said that a ban was on the table.
That, combined with the study you just mentioned, triggered a bit of a panic around gas stoves and instantly transformed this into a new culture war. On one side, people were worried that they were going to have their gas stove taken away from them. And then there were a lot of people who were just encountering the science that gas poses health problems for the first time.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, so there was this study, as you say, linking stoves to asthma. What did it say exactly so we so we can cut through the noise?
REBECCA LEBER: The study was building on prior research that finds a clear link between the nitrogen dioxide from the gas stove and asthma, specifically childhood asthma. So it said, looking nationally, that about 12% to 13% of childhood asthma is linked to this nitrogen dioxide that comes from the gas stove. In states that are heavily reliant on gas, that number can be even higher.
IRA FLATOW: And how solid are these health findings?
REBECCA LEBER: You can quibble about the numbers. But I think if you take this study in the larger context of decades of research on nitrogen dioxide and gas appliances, there is really convincing evidence that this is an overlooked problem, particularly for vulnerable populations, like children, the elderly, people with prior existing conditions.
So this was a study building on decades of prior research finding all sorts of links between respiratory problems and nitrogen dioxide. Some of these studies were observational. Some were based on surveys and other types of analysis. And in this case, they were drawing from previous peer-reviewed research and then looking at asthma rates in the US and coming up with a number for the first time that puts this on a level of secondhand smoke.
IRA FLATOW: So it’s basically a form of indoor air pollution, right, the emissions indoors? And we know that air pollution in general is bad for respiratory diseases.
REBECCA LEBER: Exactly. Indoor air is this problem that we just, as a society, overlook because we don’t really have regulators who keep track of the quality of our indoor air. Gas appliances particularly get overlooked here. And I think what I’ve heard from a lot of people in my reporting is that they didn’t even realize that when they turned their gas stove or oven on that they were combusting a fossil fuel right in their kitchen.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. Now, to reiterate, though, no one is actually saying now that stoves will be banned for health reasons. No one’s coming to your home to take your stove. But it is possible they’ll be phased out down the road or there might be regulations around their use.
REBECCA LEBER: Yeah, exactly. There is no ban, especially for existing stoves. But I would also say that a ban on new appliances is very much down the road. That’s something that the CPSC has already come out quite strongly on, that they’re not considering a ban.
And there’s actually a whole range of other regulations they can undertake here that can make gas stoves a little bit safer. So I think it’s really unlikely that they’ll start with the ban.
IRA FLATOW: So I’m interested in hearing that. What other kinds of regulations are you talking about?
REBECCA LEBER: Well, right now there aren’t really any regulations when it comes to gas stoves. So one thing that improves outcomes for people is improving ventilation. And we know that a lot of people don’t have the kind of ventilation that actually makes their indoor air safer. So that can include a range hood that actually sends that dirty air outdoors. A lot of people either don’t have it, they don’t use it, or it’s not working. So one thing that the agency could require is that all gas stoves that are sold have to meet certain requirements for ventilation.
Another interesting proposal is they can make sure that gas shows are sold with air monitors just so people are aware of when their home is reaching unsafe levels. There also could be more warnings around the risks.
And this is just some of this range of options that the CPSC can take. But we also know that the Biden administration is trying to incentivize people to electrify their homes using tax breaks and rebates. So we can have this kind of carrot here that nudges people in this electrified direction, while agencies also look at regulating the appliance.
IRA FLATOW: And so if there are cities and states which are restricting already the use of gas entirely in new construction, they’re phasing it out to shift us away from fossil fuels?
REBECCA LEBER: Yeah, there’s this two-pronged approach happening. One is the gas stove health debate about our indoor air quality. And then there’s also the climate problem of gas appliances. And both of these are really interrelated here.
But when it comes to climate change, our buildings that run on gas are a huge problem. They’re running on methane, which is a really polluting greenhouse gas, far more polluting than CO2 in the short term. And our buildings are contributing to about 12% of US greenhouse gases. So in order to address climate change, we have to get our buildings off of these fossil fuels.
When you look at all of these different sources of gas in buildings, you’re basically running what political scientist Leah Stokes has called mini fossil fuel plants all over your home. So if we’re going to tackle climate change, it makes sense to start shutting down those mini fossil fuel plants.
Gas stoves themselves are a pretty small part of that problem. Boilers and furnaces actually contribute a lot more to that methane. But the gas still usually comes in a bundle. If you’re running on gas for cooking, you’re probably running on it for other appliances. So that’s why this debate is all mixed up together.
IRA FLATOW: I’ve been looking into moving away from gas, from my gas range, because I’m trying to get away from fossil fuels. And I’ve been looking into induction stovetops. And I’m not replacing my old stovetop to begin with, but buying these portable little induction hot plates that you can get that are very efficient. So you can try to do a few things on your own here.
REBECCA LEBER: Totally. I rent. And I understand where most people are coming from, that they can’t immediately renovate their kitchens or they’re just not in a position to. And there’s a lot you can do that doesn’t mean ripping out your gas stoves.
One is this hot plate that you just mentioned. There’s a lot of options out there from higher end to running well under $100. And that you’re just plugging in to an outlet. And I’ve heard some great reviews of even that just to replace some of that stovetop cooking.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah, and they also say, you know, I can control the temperatures so much better on my gas range than I can with my electric range. But that’s old stuff. These new induction cooktops have 20 different settings you can put on them. And you can get very fine control with them. It’s not your father’s electric range anymore.
REBECCA LEBER: Yeah, I love that. I hear the concerns when people think about the learning curve with induction versus gas stoves. But I’ve talked to a lot of people who’ve made the switch and hear lots of great reviews about the precision, how fast it is. The stovetop, the actual glass piece doesn’t even really get hot. So there’s a lot of bonuses for switching to induction. And I guess there’s a learning curve. But I think it’s a lot smaller than people realize.
Other things you can do, at least in terms of improving your indoor air quality, is open a window. If you have a range hood that you aren’t turning on, please start turning that on, being more mindful of your use of the kitchen. There’s plenty of other ways we are electrifying our kitchens, from using electric kettles to toaster ovens. I have a gas stove myself that I’m not too happy with. And I try to lessen my use as much as possible.
IRA FLATOW: Yeah. And people have such an attachment to gas. I guess we should not be surprised at that because it goes way back to when gas lighting lit our streets and our homes, all the way to cooking on your backyard grill, right, with propane.
REBECCA LEBER: Yeah, there’s this fascinating history here that I’ve dug into going back a century of this battle between electric cooking and gas cooking. And as the gas industry was trying to gain market share, marketing was really important to do that. So the very expression “cooking with gas,” that actually comes from the gas industry. And they had the comedian then, Bob Hope, use that in his routines.
IRA FLATOW: Is that right?
REBECCA LEBER: Yeah, that’s one of the fun facts. Over the decades, they’ve had celebrities in newspaper ads posing with their gas stoves, talking about this as healthy cooking, cooking of the future. And in our modern times, the gas industry has actually hired social media influencers to do the modern version of this. And I think there is this sense of gas stoves as this fashionable icon and this status symbol, almost. And this is why the gas industry is capitalizing on the gas stove, because people have an emotional attachment to it, unlike their furnace.
IRA FLATOW: Well, Rebecca, thank you for going through all of this and educating us all about electrical heating and gas heating. Thank you.
REBECCA LEBER: Thank you.
IRA FLATOW: Rebecca Leber, senior reporter at Vox covering climate. You can learn more about this topic and find links to her reporting. It’s all there on our website, sciencefriday.com/gasstoves.