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U.S. agency examines secret pollution source in 40 million homes: Gas stoves.

The hidden hazard of these appliances, indoor air quality exposure and asthma is finally getting attention

(Washington Post illustration; iStock)
5 min

For years, scientists and health advocates have tried to bring attention to a secret source of air pollution sitting in 40 million homes around the United States — which jump-starts childhood asthma, increases the risk of respiratory problems and emits planet-warming gasses.

It’s the gas stove.

And now, those efforts seem to be gaining traction. On Monday, Richard Trumka Jr., one of the four commissioners of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), said in an interview that the U.S. agency was considering a ban on gas stoves — or, at least, standards around the amount of toxic fumes such stoves can spew into Americans’ kitchens.

On Wednesday, the commission’s chair said it would not ban gas stoves, but was researching health risks of gas stoves and possible increases to safety standards.

“I am not looking to ban gas stoves and the CPSC has no proceeding to do so,” said Alexander Hoehn-Saric, the chair of the commission, in a statement.

Some cities — including Los Angeles, Seattle and New York — have already moved to ban gas stoves in certain new homes and apartments. Kathy Hochul (D), the governor of New York, has also proposed banning gas hookups, including for gas stoves, in new buildings in the entire state.

All cooking creates some form of air pollution. But gas stoves are burning natural gas, a mix of methane and other chemicals. That means that when a gas stove is on, it releases not only fine pieces of particulate matter that can invade the lungs, but also nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and formaldehyde — all of which have been linked to various health risks.

Scientists have identified nitrogen dioxide, for example, as contributing to childhood onset of asthma and worsening asthma symptoms. According to one study, children living in a household with gas stoves have a 42 percent increased likelihood of already having asthma and a 24 percent increased risk of developing asthma at some point in their lifetime. Last week, scientists from the clean energy think tank RMI estimated in a peer-reviewed study that 12.7 percent of childhood asthmas could be attributed to living in a household with a gas stove. Some scientists have compared the risks of gas stove use to having a smoker in the home.

The Environmental Protection Agency doesn’t have the power to regulate indoor air quality, and homes with gas stoves can often have nitrogen dioxide levels far in excess of EPA outdoor guidelines. The European Union, meanwhile, is currently urging lawmakers to establish indoor air quality regulations across the bloc.

But Americans have been slow to switch to electric or induction stoves — in part because of the efforts of the natural gas industry. Beginning in the 1930s, the gas industry released commercials, advertisements and slogans connecting “cooking with gas” with culinary bliss. (At one point in the 1980s there was even a catchy, and somewhat cringeworthy, rap video.) In recent years, gas companies have hired PR firms to oppose local bans on gas appliances in new buildings — with representatives sometimes infiltrating neighborhood social media groups.

Now, however, the tide seems to be turning, as the connection between natural gas cooking, climate change and poor health becomes more visible. Natural gas stoves are not huge emitters of carbon dioxide, but connecting homes to gas lines creates a long-term dependence on fossil fuels that can be hard to break. Research has also shown that gas stoves emit methane — a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide in the short-term — even when they are turned off.

Some consumers have been reluctant to make the shift to electric stoves given the cost of higher-end induction stoves, which offer more versatility that traditional electric ranges. But the Inflation Reduction Act, a landmark climate bill passed last year, includes cash to help low- and moderate-income households move away from their gas stoves. Starting later this year, millions of Americans could get up to $840 off the cost of an electric or induction stove.

The CPSC, the agency responsible for managing the safety of U.S. consumer products, is not going to ban gas stoves — or even propose any regulations — anytime soon.

“Any regulatory action by the Commission will involve a lengthy process,” a spokesperson said in an email. Agency staff will begin collecting data on gas stove hazards this year, with the aim to propose “solutions to those hazards” later in the year.

Trumka also clarified on Twitter that any regulations would apply to new products, not current ones in homes. “CPSC isn’t coming for anyone’s gas stoves,” he wrote.

The American Gas Association pushed back against the recent research and on natural gas cooking and asthma. “Any efforts to ban highly efficient natural gas stoves should raise alarm bells for the 187 million Americans who depend on this essential fuel every day,” they said in a statement.

But as more and more information emerges about the health risks — and as the Biden administration focuses in on electrifying household appliances across the country — the move from gas to electric may be a question not of “if,” but of “when.”