• April 22nd, 2024
  • Monday, 10:08:46 AM

Gas Stoves: The Fracking Tailpipe in Your Kitchen


 

Sandra Steingraber

 

This is an essay about the long-standing evidence that gas stoves harm children and why so many of us persist in liking them anyway. But it begins with pesticides.

 

When wildlife biologist Rachel Carson wrote about the dangers of DDT and 18 other synthetic pesticides in her 1962 book, Silent Spring, the chemicals she had in her sights were, commercially speaking, less than two decades old.

 

Organochlorine pesticides had been developed under wartime secrecy for purposes that included halting epidemics of typhus and malaria among our troops in both European and Pacific theaters of operation. Also included: a plan to destroy the Japanese rice crop. (We dropped the atom bomb instead; Agent Orange would have to wait until Vietnam.)

 

After World War II ended, these chemicals received a heroes’ welcome—orchestrated by a chemical industry-sponsored marketing campaign—and were deployed commercially in civilian life, forever changing the way food was grown, kitchens disinfected, children de-loused, and suburban lawns freed from crabgrass.

 

The rapid transformation of chemical pesticides from obscure weapons of war to ubiquitous household helpers was not an easy lift for advertisers. On the one hand, DDT needed to be marketed as a ruthless assassin, far more effective at killing insect pests than any earlier concoction. On the other hand, since it was going to be stored in the kitchen pantry and sprayed on baby blankets, DDT needed to be seen as a harmless pal.

 

Why should we keep cooking dinner on primitive technologies that were developed and hyped by rival fossil fuel industries locked in a hundred-years-war to capture bigger market shares?

 

Thus, in one vintage magazine ad, an aproned housewife in a pith helmet and stiletto heels aims a spray gun at two cockroaches on her kitchen counter. The caption reads, “Super Ammunition for the Continued Battle on the Home Front.”

 

In another, the aproned woman appears in a chorus line of dancing farm produce singing “DDT is good for me!”

 

In deconstructing the myth of the deadly-yet-benign chemicals known as organochlorine pesticides, Carson’s first task was to remind to her readers that dangerous things, when they become popular enough, can assume what she called “the harmless aspect of the familiar” simply by virtue of appearing everywhere.

 

By the time she published the book, a full-on backlash against the evidence she’d compiled was underway with chemical industry trade organizations speaking in the voice of science. They dressed up propaganda as objective reports. They issued statements under the banners of scientific societies to which they donated as “sustaining members.” They sent their talking points to physicians who might well be receiving questions about the harms of pesticides from concerned patients. In her many public speeches, Carson called them all out.

 

Gas stoves were first developed commercially in the 1880s. Gas utilities did the marketing because, as energy historian Joshua Lappen explained to me in an email, “their customers were abandoning gas light for electric light. They popularized gas stoves as a way of creating a new retail business as their original business began to fail.”

 

Unlike chemical pesticides, gas stoves drove the slow road to popularity, with consumer acceptance extending only as far as the natural gas distribution system itself. In the 1930s, keen to further expand that infrastructure, the fossil fuel industry, and, most notably, the American Gas Association, began a hearts-and-minds campaign to promote gas stoves.

 

As documented by environmental journalist Rebecca Leber, the industry embraced “natural gas” as the name of its fuel and coined the advertising jingle “Now we’re cooking with gas!” That slogan was then placed in the mouths of cartoon characters (Daffy Duck) and comedians (Bob Hope, Jack Benny) and entered the public lexicon, becoming a metaphor for making progress.

 

By the 1950s, Bing Crosby was hawking gas stoves. So was film star Marlena Dietrich and Broadway actress Julia Meade, who, in addition to appearing in ads for stoves also appeared in the CBS drama series, Playhouse 90, which was sponsored by “your Gas company and the Gas industry. See local listings for time and station.” The pitch was modernity and sophistication. Gas stoves, Hollywood celebrities assured us, were clean, fast, precise, automatic, silent, and dependable, with “no hangover heat.”

 

Still, despite all the star power, the task of convincing the American public to actualize warm and fuzzy feelings about pipeline-dependent stoves fueled by explosive vapors was a heavy lift.

 

One drag force on the gas stove was growing competition from the electric stove, which also came on the market in the 1880s, and, by the 1930s was being heavily promoted by a rival fossil fuel behemoth: the electric utilities (mostly burning coal) which sought to create consumer demand for electric power.

 

As recently as the 1970s, fewer than one in every three new homes in the United States was equipped with a stove that ran on gas. In the mid-20th century, it was the electric stove, not the gas stove, that was considered a status symbol and the sine qua non of cooking technology.

 

In the 1980s, the gas industry redoubled its efforts to sell the public on the idea that gas cooking was the superior option and gas stoves a coveted status symbol. As Lappen told me, this is when the American preference for gas cooking began to solidify and only then because of two major changes in how stoves were advertised:

 

For decades, electric and gas stoves had both been marketed aggressively, using competing celebrity campaigns to fight for market share. After the energy crises of the 1970s, though, many electric utilities ended their demand-creation programs and devoted their advertising budgets to encouraging electricity conservation. Gas utilities, on the other hand, took advantage of new federal subsidies and launched a major gas stove advertising campaign.

 

By 2019, gas stoves were ascendent, appearing in more than 35 percent of U.S. households with gas stove prevalence in three states—California, New York, and Illinois—approaching 70 percent.

 

However, also by 2019 the gas industry was facing serious headwinds from municipal efforts, rooted in climate concerns, that sought to phase out natural gas from buildings altogether and embrace electrification mandates as part of the energy transition to renewables. At this writing, nearly 100 cities across North America—as well as Washington state and California—are drafting or have already passed policies to electrify new and existing buildings and end the practice of burning fossil fuels inside of them. (Concerned Health Professionals of New York, a program of SEHN, is supporting the effort to phase in code requirements that would ban gas hook-ups for new buildings throughout New York State.)

 

The gas industry has responded to the momentum of the decarbonization movement in two ways. The first is with political power—by, for example, pressuring state legislatures to enact bills that would prevent cities from passing clean energy building codes. The second, as always, is with propaganda to drive the message that burning a fossil fuel over an open flame inside your home is safe and, indeed, when it comes to cooking dinner, irreplaceable.

 

It’s hard to overstate the stakes here. As noted by Aaron Regunberg in the Harvard Environmental Law Review,

 

While momentum around building electrification is growing in localities across the country, the gas industry is deploying preemption policies to block these decarbonization efforts, aided by a consumer choice message that disproportionately focuses on gas stoves.

 

Regunberg notes that even though gas stoves represent a vanishingly small fraction (just three percent) of residential natural gas sales for the industry, they are the most hallowed of all household appliances and thus remain central to the industry’s strategy to entrench ever more gas infrastructure and keep the fossil fuel party going. A gas stove in a new home is the camel’s nose under the tent:

 

Unlike furnaces or water boilers, consumers see their stoves every time they enter their kitchens; they use them every day to cook their meals. It makes sense, then, that marketing campaigns would have an easier time persuading consumers to feel an emotional connection to their stove than to other fossil gas appliances. But all gas comes into a home or building through the same pipe, so when a consumer invests in a gas hookup for a stove, it makes it much more likely that gas-powered space and water heating—the industry’s real income-generators—will follow.

 

In other words, the burner tip of a gas stove—the literal terminus of a pipeline that begins at a fracking well—serves as the anchor for new fossil fuel-dependent building construction. The continued desirability of a clicking blue flame in the kitchen helps guarantee the whoosh of a gas furnace kicking on in the basement—and the persistence of a gas distribution pipeline system snaking under the sidewalks of the whole neighborhood.

 

The method for manufacturing that desirability has shifted over time, however. Notably, nearly a century after “now we’re cooking with gas,” the industry propaganda no longer promises progress and sophistication but instead, fully embraces the nostalgia and primal romance of the open flame.

 

“I think playing with fire, working with fire, having that live ammunition there at the pan, it’s just absolutely priceless and essential,” says Chef Justin Beckett about gas stoves.

 

Beckett is a gas industry evangelist. Where does this quote appear? On the website #CookingWithGas, which is hosted by the American Gas Association. Relatedly, the Blue Flame Alliance—whose members includes natural gas providers, including SoCalGas, and makers of gas stoves, including Vulcan—promotes Beckett’s restaurant in Phoenix.

 

One of Blue Flame Alliance’s stated goals is to “address market issues that can result in the reduction of gas load including the threat of electrification and environmental concerns.” [Emphasis added.]

 

As documented in a 2020 investigation by Rebecca Leber, today’s gas stove spokespeople include not only platformed culinary stars but Instagram influencers. Between 2018 and 2020, the gas industry paid social media and wellness personalities to distribute more than 100 sponsored posts extolling the virtues of gas stoves. In her 2021 follow-up investigation, Leber documented other tactics, including paid influencers who spread pro-gas, anti-electrification messages by microtargeting individuals on the hyperlocal social networking platform Nextdoor.

 

Like the Eisenhower-era, cartoon housewives hawking DDT in their cartoon kitchens, today’s gas mavens don’t ever mention that the product they are pushing is poisoning the people who inhabit the kitchen. Just because gas stoves are familiar, Rachel Carson might remind us, doesn’t mean they aren’t harmful.

 

The yellow-brown haze that hangs over cities, visible from airplanes, is nitrogen dioxide. It’s created in a two-part process whenever fossil fuels are burned. In the high heat generated by the combustion process itself, nitrogen and oxygen in the air combine to form nitrogen oxide, which then reacts with other chemicals in the air to form the corrosive gas, nitrogen dioxide. This chemical reaction happens in the smokestacks of coal-burning power plants. It happens in the tailpipes of cars and trucks. It happens in the air above the gas burners of kitchen stoves.

 

Whenever fossil fuels are ignited—coal, oil, or natural gas—nitrogen dioxide is made.

 

Nitrogen dioxide molecules have a couple of properties that make them problematic for us. The first is that they are not very water soluble. This means that when we inhale them, they bypass the mucus membranes of our nose and throat, quickly travelling all the way to the terminal bronchioles of our lungs, entering our spongy alveoli where oxygen and carbon dioxide are swapped for each other. Because nitrogen dioxide doesn’t cause inflammation or irritation to our upper respiratory tracts, those exposed may not sense the danger.

 

The harm happens below. Highly reactive and quickly converting to nitric acid, nitrogen dioxide molecules cause inflammation and acute injury to the cells lining our lungs. They also disable the immune cells that inhabit this tissue, leaving us more vulnerable to respiratory pathogens, such as influenza viruses, and increasing our susceptibility to infection. They also trigger bronchial spasms and wheezing. They make asthma attacks worse, and they have the power to cause asthma in children. They also exacerbate cardiovascular illness among people with heart disease.

 

The air inside homes with gas stoves have average concentrations of nitrogen dioxide that are 50 to 400 percent higher than the air inside homes with electric stoves. Indeed, indoor air pollution from gas stoves can easily exceed levels that would be considered illegal outdoors (as, for example, along high-traffic roadways) where concentrations are regulated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). The EPA does not regulate gas stoves or any other sources of indoor pollution.

 

The data linking nitrogen dioxide exposure from gas stoves to health harms in children goes back decades.

 

By 1977, for example, we already knew that English and Scottish children living in homes with gas stoves for cooking had more frequent coughs, chest colds, and bronchitis. The authors of this study, published 46 years ago, posited that exposure to nitrogen dioxide was the likely cause. By 1991, this trend was replicated in other studies and quantified. Researchers showed that the risk of respiratory infections in children exposed to long-term, elevated levels of nitrogen dioxide—comparable to the amounts emitted by gas stove—jumps by 20 percent. By 1994, all studies of nitrogen dioxide exposure and respiratory illnesses in children showed positive trends.

 

By 1997, the asthma connection was coming into focus with the demonstration that wheezing and asthma attacks were more common in children living in homes with gas stoves. By 2001, a cross-sectional study had shown that use of a gas stove or gas oven for home heating was a main risk factor for asthma in U.S. children under age six. By 2008, researchers had demonstrated that inner-city Baltimore preschoolers living in homes with gas stoves were both breathing higher levels of nitrogen dioxides and also suffering increased frequency of asthma symptoms.

 

By 2013, the link between gas stoves and childhood asthma was quantified: a meta-analysis published in the International Journal of Epidemiology showed that children living in a home with gas cooking have a 42 percent increased risk of having current asthma and a 24 percent increased risk of developing asthma sometime during their lifespan.

 

(The above is a small sample of a much larger body of work. For a comprehensive compendium of the many decades of studies documenting the health effects from gas stove pollution, with 135 footnotes, see this 2020 report.)

 

In the last two years, the mounting concerns about gas stoves have expanded further. By 2022, it was clear that the problem goes beyond filling up indoor air with combustion byproducts. A Harvard-led study showed that natural gas collected from gas stoves in the Boston area contained volatile vapors, such as benzene, a carcinogen linked to childhood leukemia and for which there is no safe level of exposure.

 

Meanwhile, a Stanford-led study showed that gas stoves routinely leak unburned natural gas, emitting 0.8–1.3 percent of the gas they use, even when they are turned off. Indeed, more than three-quarters of the leaks happen when the stove is not being used. This means that methane plumes, and the benzene that travels with them, are continuously wafting into your kitchen airspace even if you are living on take-out and microwave popcorn. It also means that the annual methane emissions from all gas stoves in U.S. homes have a climate impact roughly on par with the emissions from 500,000 cars.

 

2022 was also the year that gas stoves caught the attention of public agencies and health organizations. The American Medical Association (AMA), the nation’s largest medical society, released a resolution recognizing that cooking with a gas stove increases both household air pollution and the risk of childhood asthma. The AMA announced its support for programs to aid the transition from gas to electric stoves.

 

Then, the American Public Health Association (APHA) followed suit and became the first national public health organization to make a statement on gas stoves. The APHA policy statement calls on the public health community to advocate for increased awareness of indoor air pollution from gas stoves and promotes several strategies to improve health outcomes and equity.

 

At the same time, the National Center for Healthy Housing conducted its own study, finding that while mechanical ventilation systems did significantly reduce other types of indoor air pollution, they did not significantly lower nitrogen dioxide levels, “which primarily come from gas stoves, countering the misconception that opening windows or increasing ventilation is enough to address the health impacts of these appliances.”

 

And then came the bombshell study in January 2023.

 

An international team of epidemiologists and researchers including by Brady Seals at RMI (founded as the Rocky Mountain Institute) in Boulder, Colorado, quantified the population-level implications of cooking with gas. Drawing on data from the 2019 American Housing Survey as well as earlier studies that had calculated the relative risks of gas stove-induced asthma, the team found that 12.7 percent of current childhood asthma in the United States was attributable to gas stoves.

 

In other words, 647,700 kids. This is similar to the risk of having asthma from living with a smoker.

 

Further, some of the most densely populated states had numbers even higher than the national average. In Illinois, 21.1 percent of childhood asthma cases were associated with gas stoves. In California, 20.1 percent. In New York, 18.8 percent. The results were shocking.

 

Published on December 21, 2022 in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, the study initially received no public attention. On January 2, I and other members of Concerned Health Professionals of New York were contacted by one of the study’s authors and her communications team to help serve as subject matter experts for reporters and to help explain the significance of their findings on social media as they shared the study results with the press on January 4, 2023.

 

We happily agreed, and I fully expected to play a familiar role: calling the public’s attention to an alarming environmental health story that would likely be largely overlooked by the mainstream media. That’s not what happened.

 

The study received modest coverage in the first few days, and then, on January 9, Bloomberg ran a story under the headline “US Safety Agency to Consider Ban on Gas Stoves Amid Health Fears,” quoting the Consumer Product Safety Commission’s Richard Trumka, Jr.: “This is a hidden hazard. Any option is on the table. Products that can’t be made safe can be banned.” Not clearly articulated in this reporting was the fact that any new regulations would affect only new stoves. And that’s the moment when gas stoves entered the culture wars.

 

A full week of ever-expanding 24/7 media coverage followed, prompting a conservative backlash that saw an opportunity to slam the White House for regulatory overreach, and that backlash included false claims that the federal government was coming to take your stove. And suddenly, kitchen stoves entered the same cultural space occupied by AK-47s and gender-segregated bathrooms.

 

The 2022 National Center for Healthy Housing study concluded with a recommendation: “Based on these findings, the study recommends that builders and owners install continuous mechanical ventilation systems in all homes, while eventually phasing out gas stoves altogether…. All property owners should replace gas stoves with electric.

 

I am a property owner who replaced my gas stove with electric. Way back in 2004.

 

At the time, I was the mother of two small children, one of whom suffered greatly from cough-variant asthma, croup, and repeated bouts of pneumonia. What led me to my decision was a newly purchased carbon monoxide detector installed inside my newly purchased fixer-upper house.

 

It kept going off.

 

The fire department ran some tests and identified the gas stove in the kitchen as the source of the problem. I was told that it was emitting quite a lot of carbon monoxide.

 

So, I begrudgingly borrowed more money and swapped out the old gas stove with a cheap electric model. In 2004, I felt unlucky about my stove situation. Now I feel like my kids may have dodged a bullet. Nevertheless, reading the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health study two decades later is emotionally devastating.

 

“The study comes on the heels of 50 years of health research,” author Brady Seals told me in an email. “It helps us put the risk of gas cooking in perspective. For too long now, we’ve been mistakenly thinking that the health costs of our gas stove habit is zero, but that could not be further from the reality. Our findings show that 12.7 percent of childhood asthma could be theoretically prevented without gas stoves.”

 

Unlike DDT, which was banned for domestic use in 1972, ten years after its unfixable dangers were exposed, gas stoves have, until January 2023, largely been talked about as a matter of consumer choice. In spite of a half century of documented health harms to children from gas stoves, no policy action was ever taken, no regulations ever promulgated, no precautionary principle ever embraced. Any health advice issued so far has mostly been aimed at individual homeowners—at parents like me, the mom with the mortgage and the construction loan and the two-year-old who sometimes struggled to breathe.

 

There are two possible ways to end this essay and they both mirror the double ending that Rachel Carson provided for Silent Spring. One is to make the case for an alternative technology. And the other is to focus on human rights. These dual conclusions are not—for Carson or for me—independent of each other.

 

Carson closed Silent Spring by urging a shift from away pest control practices dependent on repurposing indiscriminate weapons of war to technologies more imaginative and intentional.

 

Namely, she urged, replace chemical solutions with biological ones. Recruit the natural enemies of pests, including fungus and bacteria, to serve as substitutes for campaigns of mass poisoning, which are doomed to failure and always bring with them untended consequences, including harm to public health.

 

The consequences of chemical pesticide dependency, she emphasized, injure future generations disproportionally. As such, they represent ethical failings.

 

Technological choices are moral choices.

So, here is the place where I say, behold the induction stove, which, by intention and engineering, is a clean, efficient way to cook food, using magnets to heat pots and pans as quickly and precisely as gas stoves while providing much more control and drawing much less electricity from the grid than pokey old electric coil stoves. And because they heat only the cooking pot and not the air around it, you stay cool under your apron.

 

Why should we keep cooking dinner on primitive technologies that were developed and hyped by rival fossil fuel industries locked in a hundred-years-war to capture bigger market shares? The gas stove is a child of the natural gas industry, which lost out to light bulbs. The electric coil stove is an offspring of the utility companies, which wanted to sell more coal-generated power. To hell with them.

 

Meanwhile, induction stoves are elegant, reasonably priced, designed with culinary delight in mind, and don’t smog up your air space like an idling car. Further, provisions within the Inflation Reduction Act offer rebates and tax credits for induction stoves that will soon bring their price tag down further. But the promotion of induction technology is not a morally neutral argument, and I want to be very careful here.

 

Stoves are an indoor environmental justice issue, but in a highly complicated way. Gas stoves are clearly linked to asthma in children, and asthma is a profoundly unequal disease. The burden of asthma falls far more heavily on children of low-income families and children of color, with Black children nearly three times more likely to have asthma than white children.

 

Lower-income households also have smaller kitchens to further concentrate the fumes, and they are more likely to lack range hoods and ventilation systems, especially in rental properties.

 

Healthcare costs of stove-induced asthma also fall disproportionally on impoverished families.

 

The average annual medical costs required to care for one child with asthma range from $3,076 to $13,612. This price tag does not include lost workdays and lost income for their wage-earning parents. Inclusive of inhalers and ER visits, gas stoves are mighty expensive.

 

But consider this: low-income families, who are more likely to live in drafty, substandard housing, more often use their stoves and ovens as supplemental forms of heat in the winter. And a gas stove can cook food and boil water during storm-related outages. Which can happen more often and for longer periods in non-white and low-income urban neighborhoods even as power is more quickly restored in white, more affluent communities. (See Buffalo, New York, Christmas Blizzard, 2022.)

 

These are not trivial matters.

 

Also not trivial: many non-Western cuisines rely on high heat and open flames for preparing dishes and creating flavors that are signatures of the culture and foundational to heritage and identity. Induction stoves can deliver high heat almost instantaneously but do not transmit it unless the cooking pot is directly in contact with the surface. In an induction world, what happens to Chinese stir-frying? Korean barbeque? Round-bottomed woks?

 

These are highly contested issues. The California Restaurant Association is currently suing the city of Berkeley in an attempt to block its phaseout of gas hook-ups in new construction. It argues that, without natural gas, certain ethnic dishes will disappear from menus.

 

Can this be right? Are certain cuisines—whether Asian, Indian, or Latin American—entirely and unalterably dependent on a non-renewable fuel that is mostly derived from fracking and rapidly destroying the climate system?

 

I am trying to listen hard. Are those voices praising gas stoves in the name of culinary justice speaking in good faith? Or are they paid influencers, perpetuating a carefully curated myth? Consider that restaurants are central to the gas industry’s campaign against gas hook-up bans in new buildings. Consider that Will Morris, who works for SoCalGas, sits on the board of advisors for the Los Angeles Trade-Technical College culinary program, which trains hundreds of chefs.

 

And I’m listening to Detroit-based Tik Tok star, Chef Jon Kung, who touts the superiority of induction stoves for wok-based cooking. In an interview with Rebecca Leber, Kung disputes the notion that gas stoves are irreplaceable to restaurant kitchens: “Any argument or reluctance to adopt induction seems to come from a refusal to change and possibly an old toxic masculine perspective, where it’s, ‘Oh, I want to cook with fire, fire is part of our job.’”

 

In the end, I stand with the kids. Their need to breathe. Their need for a stable climate. Their need to be unpoisoned. So, let’s give Rachel Carson the last word on human rights, as she applied it to DDT but could just as well apply to the nitrogen dioxide-emitting, climate-eroding fossil fuel called natural gas:

 

“Future generations are unlikely to condone our lack of prudent concern for the integrity of the natural world that supports all life.”

 

 

Sandra Steingraber is a senior scientist with the Science and Environmental Health Network. This commentary is republished with permission by the Science and Heath Environmental Health Network.