We need to talk about your gas stove, your health and climate change

Talk about your gas stove, climate change and your health.
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Americans love their gas stoves. This romance is fueled by decades-old utilities' "cooking gas" campaign that features vintage ads, a disturbing 1980s rap video, and more recently, social media celebrities. Although the details may have changed over the years, the message remains the same: A gas stove will make you a better cook.

The gas stove is now a central point in a debate about whether gas should be allowed in 35% of American homes that use it.

Potential health effects are the focus of environmental groups. The release of pollutants from burning gas can worsen or cause respiratory illness. According to Brady Seals, RMI (formerly Rocky Mountain Institute), residential appliances such as gas-powered water heaters and furnaces can vent pollutants outside. However, the stove is the most likely unvented gas appliance in your house.

Environmentalists are focusing on the potential health hazards of stoves as part of a larger campaign to get gas out of buildings in order to combat climate change. About 13% of heat-trapping emission comes from residential and commercial buildings, mostly due to the use of gas appliances.

These groups achieved a major victory when California established new standards. They will now require that gas stoves have more ventilation than electric stoves starting in 2023. Climate plan by the Biden administration calls for incentives from government to encourage residential gas users to switch to all-electric.

Gas utility companies see the increased attention to stoves' health impacts as a threat to their survival and are critical of those who raise the issue. Ted Williams, American Gas Association (AGA), commented on the California standards. He called these organizations "organizations that are first and foremost interested electrification for climate issues." He stated that they had "glommed on indoor air quality as a weak spot in the matter of direct natural gas use."

Gas utility companies are trying to keep their business afloat by downplaying the existing science regarding gas stoves and indoor quality. It points out that federal regulators are not enforcing stricter regulations for gas stoves. It is also investing in a variety of marketing campaigns to remind customers that gas cooking is more affordable.

This is an attempt to influence your next purchase of a cookstove.

Zoomen this image toggle caption Jeff Brady/NPR Jeff Brady/NPR

An epidemiologist rethinks his gas stove

Josiah Kephart, an environmental epidemiologist at Drexel University Philadelphia, studies indoor air pollution caused by cookstoves from Latin America. We met up in his kitchen on a sunny summer morning to assess the effects of his gas stove's pollution.

Kephart states that while an electric stove may use fossil fuels to heat the food, the actual combustion takes place at a faraway power plant. He says that a gas stove's combustion can be seen in the kitchen. "There is no smoke-free burning."

Gas stoves can actually produce combustion right in your kitchen. You can see the flames down there. Smoke-free combustion is not possible.

Gas stoves emit three of the most harmful pollutants: formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide (NO2). The Environmental Protection Agency states that NO2 is a toxic gas and can cause breathing problems in people suffering from asthma or chronic obstructive lung disease.

NPR rented an Air Monitor to find out how much NO2 Kephart's gas-stove releases.

Kephart is the mother of two young children. Research, including this 1992 study, has shown that children who live in homes with gas stoves have a roughly 20% higher chance of developing respiratory illnesses.

Zoomen this image toggle caption Jeff Brady/NPR Jeff Brady/NPR

The background levels in Kephart’s kitchen were 24 parts per billion (ppb) at first glance. This is normal for homes with gas stoves, but it's still much higher than the World Health Organization's (WHO) annual guideline of 5 parts per billion. The indoor NO2 standards are not set by the EPA.

Kephart begins by boiling water and baking blueberry muffins. He says, "So this is supposed be a very common scenario of cooking dinner in the kitchen: We have one stove burner and the oven set at 375."

After 12 minutes, the monitor begins to spike and shows NO2 levels of 161 ppb. Kephart says, "So now we have exceeded [WHO] the hourly guideline 106 ppb by approximately 50%." If you have children or have any type of lung disease, this is a point where we have seen people develop changes in their lungs which could lead to worsening or worsening their symptoms.

The WHO guideline is nearly doubled after half an hour.

Kephart's stove has no cover to let the outside air in. An old fan mounted high in a wall, similar to many Philadelphia row houses, is instead used to vent the pollution. Although it vents outside, the NO2 levels are still high even after Kephart turns them on. Kephart claims that the fan is only 6 feet away.

We go upstairs to check the NO2 levels in his bedroom. The bedroom door is shut and the window is open to allow in fresh air. Levels appear low at first. The WHO guidelines are exceeded when the door is left open.

Kephart and his family moved into the row house around a year ago. His wife enjoys using a gas stove to cook. He says that it is their highest priority to get the stove out and get an electric stove.

He said that it is not a given that a gas stove in your house will cause you to get sick or have asthma. It is a risk calculation. He says that if you have a large, well-ventilated kitchen, and you are healthy, this might not be your greatest concern or your greatest risk to your health.

Kephart is more cautious when it comes his children. He says, "It doesn’t make sense to me to increase the risk of them getting asthma or other respiratory illnesses by having this source right inside our home."

Gas stove emissions are not regulated by any federal agency

The EPA and Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) say that they are aware of the problem. However, no one has taken any action to regulate harmful emissions. This is a point that the gas industry insists on to ignore concerns about potential health consequences of stoves.

Seals from RMI says, "Someone has to claim this issue" and make a real change.

RMI and three other environmental organizations issued a report last summer naming gas stove emissions as a danger to human health. They urged policymakers to tighten their regulation and offer incentives to encourage Americans to switch to electric.

The gas industry is well aware of the health risks associated with residential stoves.

Gas utilities and their powerful trade group, AGA, have been conducting their own research about stove pollutants for decades. This research led to the invention of this patent that allows for the inserting of a metal rod into a flame to reduce the temperature and NO2 emissions. It was a significant step to get rid of the pilot lights that burned 24 hours per day in 1990. However, you can't eliminate all emissions from homes that burn unvented fossil fuels.

The gas utility industry now sees the growing evidence on stoves' health effects as a threat. The AGA reacted to the RMI study with a pushback. To counter the RMI study, it released public fact sheets and rebuttals for individual articles in The Wall Street Journal and The Atlantic.

The AGA created a plan internally to respond to the RMI report. Climate Investigations Center, an environmental watchdog organization, obtained the timeline through a public records request. It was shared with NPR.

The AGA had planned to launch a new research project that would compare the emissions of electric stoves with those from gas stoves. Jennifer O'Shea, Vice President of Communications, did not provide any details on the results. In an email, she stated that "we continue to focus on the important issue to ensure consumers understand both the safety and benefits of cooking with gas." "We will keep our customers informed as soon as we have more data."

AGA addresses indoor air quality concerns regarding gas stoves. It points out that all stoves emit cooking fumes. In a 1992 study, scientists identified gas stoves as a potential source of indoor air pollution. The AGA dismissed the research as a review of literature. The World Health Organization, however, cites the study as well as others when it develops its most recent indoor air pollution guidelines.

Only your stove needs to vent

The EPA recommends installing an exhaust fan over your gas stove vented to the outside in order to reduce NO2 emissions. According to the AGA, all residential gas-fired cooking ranges can be used without outdoor ventilation. However, an exhaust fan installed in your home can improve indoor air quality.

California is acting in the absence of federal oversight. California Energy Commission (CEC), has approved standards that require gas stoves to have more ventilation than electric ones. Because pollutants reach unhealthy levels quicker in smaller living spaces, gas stoves would need stronger hoods.

The CEC staff believes that the rules will become the nation's first requirements if they are implemented as planned in 2023. These rules would also be a major win for environmental groups working to raise concerns about the negative effects of gas stoves indoors.

The AGA made criticisms of the proposed standards in comments to the CEC. It stated that such decisions should be made at both the federal and voluntary levels through standards organizations. Federal agencies are slow to act on this issue. Scientists say that the world must take drastic steps to prevent the worst effects from climate change.

Your stove's climate connection

The gas line that runs from the stove's back to your stove is connected with a supply and production chain that leaks methane.

Click to enlarge the image and toggle the caption Meredith Lynne, NPR Meredith Lynne

Seals from RMI say that methane, which is the main ingredient of natural gas, "just really wants to leak." This is because methane, which is the most potent greenhouse gas, is more powerful than carbon dioxide but doesn't last as long in the atmosphere.

President Biden's climate strategy includes an objective to reduce the carbon footprint of buildings by half by 2035. This is achieved through incentives to retrofit homes or businesses with electric appliances and furnaces.

According to the AGA, methane emissions from gas utilities account 2.7% of greenhouse gas emissions. They have declined almost 70% since 1990, even though utilities have added customers. The rest of the supply chain, which includes drilling, fracking and transportation, also leaks methane. While some equipment can vent, most of the gas that escapes from it is not intended to. This has been linked to tree death in areas like Boston and Philadelphia.

Natural gas has been recognized for reducing carbon dioxide emissions in recent years as cleaner-burning power plants have replaced coal ones. The entire gas industry, which includes large oil companies that have natural gas holdings has supported efforts to regulate methane emissions more tightly and worked to reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Scientists say that most fossil fuels in the world, including almost half of the global gas reserves, must remain underground to avoid the worst effects of climate change.

Biden's plan sets a goal to achieve net-zero emission across the economy by 2050. According to a growing number of studies, including those from Princeton University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, and the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), meeting this goal will require electrification of buildings and appliances that are more efficient. They will also need to be powered mostly by emission-free sources such as renewable energy.

Karen Harbert, President and CEO of AGA, often states that her industry wants to contribute to solving the climate problem. She has also created a position statement. NPR interviewed her earlier this year to say that "if the goal is reduce emissions, then we're all in." "If the goal of our business is to go out of business, then not so much."

Harbert's industry claims it is developing cleaner alternatives such as so-called renewable gas from landfills or manure that can be mixed and run through existing utility pipeline networks.

The gas stove can be used as a "gateway appliance".

Environmentalists are now focusing their attention on the gas stove to encourage people to switch from natural gas. It may seem odd at first, as other gas-burning appliances in the home use more fuel, such as furnaces.

The stove is considered a "gateway device" that helps to build a huge fossil fuel infrastructure, from the wellhead to the home. Many builders and agents will tell you that gas stoves are desired by buyers. Gas utilities are a contributing factor to this assumption.

Although it's not very sexy for you to discuss your water heater with your friends, it is possible to have a conversation about their stove.

Seals from RMI says, "We need to start talking about electrifying buildings." The idea is that once an electric stove is available, people will switch water heaters, dryers, and furnaces more often.

Not only environmental groups are supporting widespread electrification. Three physicians published an opinion piece in the New England Journal of Medicine, recommending that new gas appliances be taken off the market and ending subsidies to the industry. They also recommended banning gas hookups inside buildings.

The Center for American Progress is a liberal think tank that wants incentives for the federal government to encourage people to switch to electric water heaters, furnaces, and appliances. According to the group, switching to electric appliances is necessary to achieve global warming limits of less than 3 degrees Fahrenheit. Old gas appliances can be replaced by newer models, which can pollute for decades. Since the mid-1800s, Earth has warmed by about 2 degrees Fahrenheit.

Click to enlarge the image and toggle caption Jane Stackhouse Jane Stackhouse

She got rid gas for her grandchildren

Jane Stackhouse, Portland, Ore. is one of a few people who have already chosen to disconnect their local gas utility. After Republican state legislators blocked a climate-focused bill called "cap and trade," she did this last year.

Stackhouse responded that she felt that she had control of the duplex and that she was looking for a contractor to make it all electric.

She installed efficient electric water heaters and replaced each gas stove, furnace, and fireplace. It cost her over $35,000. She claims that her utility bills were the same regardless of having air conditioner installed to combat the heat in Portland.

Stackhouse said it made her feel utterly emptied to think about the impact of climate change on her grandchildren's lives. "It was my small contribution to cleaning up the world."


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