5 myths about gas stoves, the latest culture war clash

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The debate over the future of the gas stove has been going on for years, long before last week, when it turned into a full-fledged culture war.

Public health officials, researchers, and doctors have long been taking note of the abundant research linking pollution from the gas stove to respiratory problems, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission announced in December it was taking a look at the health risks to determine what regulations would be appropriate for the gas stove.

But after a member of the CPSC told Bloomberg in an interview last week that “products that can’t be made safe can be banned,” the fervor built quickly. Republicans (and some Democrats) portrayed the commissioner’s remark as a sign that the Biden administration was coming for the gas stove as its next attack on American freedom. And plenty of defenders of the gas stove came out insisting it’s the superior way to cook.

The fracas generated some new myths about gas stove regulation — and perpetuated other long-held misunderstandings. Here’s how to separate fact from fiction.

The hysteria that ensued when the Consumer Product Safety Commission said it would be taking a closer look at gas stoves could be summed up by a tweet from Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX). “I’ll NEVER give up my gas stove. If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands. COME AND TAKE IT!!”

Some confusion comes from remarks from CPSC Commissioner Richard Trumka Jr., who told Bloomberg that “any option” is on the table as the independent agency considers the hazards posed by the gas stove: “Products that can’t be made safe can be banned,” he said. The CPSC later clarified those remarks: The commission said that there is no ban under consideration, and “the CPSC is looking for ways to reduce related indoor air quality hazards.”

There are a lot of other options, like requiring range hood ventilation to be sold alongside the gas stove and warning labels, that the commission could consider before an outright ban. And any CPSC regulation for stoves would apply to new products being sold, not those already in people’s homes.

What’s more, it’s not the White House that’s calling all the shots here. The CPSC commissioners are appointed by the president, but otherwise, its regulations are not vetted through the White House, unlike the Environmental Protection Agency’s process. States and cities are also already taking action to minimize the climate and health risks involved with combusting gas indoors.

The White House has said it doesn’t support a ban, but it is promoting incentives through the Inflation Reduction Act that help people voluntarily electrify their homes.

In a letter to the CPSC’s Trumka, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) calls the gas stove a “newfound ‘hidden hazard’ that rests on limited research.” In another section, Vance says there’s a “lack of compelling evidence.”

The study that caught national attention estimated that almost 13 percent of childhood asthma cases in the US are linked to gas stove use, similar to the level caused by secondhand smoke. That study is based on a review of the evidence from 2013, which examined 41 studies from multiple countries, dating as far back as 1977, to conclude that children living in households with gas stoves had a 42 percent higher risk of currently being diagnosed with asthma and a 24 percent higher risk of being diagnosed with asthma at some point in their life.

“Although the effects of gas cooking and indoor NO2 on asthma and wheeze were found to be relatively small … the public health impact may still be considerable because gas cooking is widespread,” the authors of the 2013 evidence review concluded.

These studies looked at the impact of gas cooking specifically. But there’s an even longer trail of studies looking at the pollutant nitrogen dioxide, which is emitted by gas stoves, and the damage it does to people exposed to it outdoors. In fact, outdoor NO2 pollution is regulated by the EPA, which has done its own thorough reviews of NO2 risks.

The idea that gas is vastly superior to all its alternatives is pervasive and is eagerly pushed by both appliance makers and the natural gas industry. Whirlpool, which manufactures both gas and electric, says matter-of-factly on its website, “If you like to make meals that require rapid temperature changes, gas ranges might be the way to go.”

The comparisons between gas and electric are usually comparing apples and oranges: the contemporary gas stove against dated electric stoves. The better modern equivalent is induction, which uses electromagnetic energy that makes the pans themselves a heat source, leaving the actual stovetop relatively cool. These new models come with settings that allow you to cook precisely at a certain temperature and hold that heat, with a lower risk of burns. Other positive reviews note that induction stoves are easier to clean and can boil water faster than gas stoves.

Chefs are also more split on induction versus gas than the public realizes. In a Vox interview, Jon Kung, a Detroit-based chef, noted that he prefers induction because it improves his indoor air quality and heat in the home. He also noted you can use woks with it, a common complaint about switching away from gas. Sierra magazine has talked to other chefs who prefer induction. “For me, it was an economic no-brainer,” chef Michael Godlewski said on opening an all-induction restaurant in Pittsburgh in spring 2022 called EYV (Eat Your Veggies). “They asked me where I wanted the gas line, and I said, ‘Nowhere.’”

An induction range is expensive; it can run you in the thousands of dollars. But the cost is coming down. One program some households may qualify for is the Inflation Reduction Act’s kitchen appliance tax credits and rebates. The 25C tax credits cover a range of energy-efficient products in the home, including an induction range. It allows you to deduct 30 percent of the costs of electrical work on the house (up to $1,200). Later this year, there will be rebates available, too, under the High-Efficiency Electric Home Rebate Program. Households making up to 150 percent of the local median income will lower the upfront costs of the appliance and installation. Lower-income households (below 80 percent of the median income) can have all their costs covered under the program.

In the meantime, households that don’t want to wait or don’t qualify could also opt for a portable plug-in induction stovetop, which costs much less and is renter-friendly.

Gas stoves are common but not ubiquitous. Per the Energy Information Administration, on average, 38 percent of the country uses gas for cooking, or about 40 million stoves. But those numbers vary widely depending on where you are. New York, New Jersey, Illinois, and California have the highest rates of gas stoves in the country, over 60 percent. Southeastern states have some of the lowest rates in the country, under 20 percent.

Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) reacted to the CPSC uproar by tweeting, “I can tell you the last thing that would ever leave my house is the gas stove that we cook on.”

Manchin himself may have a gas stove, but many in his state do not. In fact, a survey from the EIA in 2020 found that a quarter of West Virginia residents have a gas cooking appliance, while 73 percent use electric.

The consequences of gas appliances aren’t also evenly distributed. Children, who have smaller lungs, are at higher risk of developing complications from NO2, and so are older adults and people with preexisting health conditions. Another risk factor is if a person is already exposed to other pollution sources in addition to the stove. They might live near a highway, an industrial site, or even in an area with concentrated gas appliances all venting outside, so they are breathing dirty air both outside and indoors.

The American Gas Association’s website emphasizes that with ventilation like a working range hood, the gas stove is not a problem for indoor air quality. The Wall Street Journal editorial board echoed this: “Studies flogged by the climate left don’t account for the effects of ventilation. One even sealed a test kitchen in plastic tarps in an effort to show that gas stoves increase pollution.”

Ventilating the kitchen is the only solution we have to lessening exposure to pollutants when the stove or oven is on. But in practice, some hoods don’t vent the air outdoors but rather recirculate it inside, or people may be in a small space where pollution builds more quickly. Some issues are behavioral — like people not even using the hood they have, by neglecting to turn it on. Some of the problem is that not all hoods are capable of filtering out NO2 levels. As journalist Michael Thomas explained, range hoods don’t always perform well in the real world. Studies, like at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) found that code-compliant hoods in California still captured just about half of NO2 pollution.

More recent research from LBNL found that a gas stove can also be leaking methane, a greenhouse gas, even when the appliance is shut off. Inside the home, the level of methane is probably low enough that the researchers don’t consider these leaks to be a health threat. But methane is also a larger problem, not just for its climate risks but because it contributes to ground-level ozone that harms human health.

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