Colorado’s oil and gas industry is pushing back against a recent study linking natural gas stoves to childhood asthma, which sparked a national debate in recent weeks about the safety of the appliances.
The study is flawed, industry officials say, and so too are efforts to regulate the use of natural gas appliances like stoves and air and water heaters. But researchers who authored the study for the Colorado-based organization, RMI, stand behind their findings and one member of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission cited recent research on gas stoves when he indicated a ban on the appliances could be on the horizon.
The commission’s president, Alexander Hoehn-Saric, said last week the group isn’t currently moving to ban stoves. But he did acknowledge that the research indicates “that emissions from gas stoves can be hazardous, and the federal agency is looking for ways to reduce indoor air quality hazards.”
Despite the national conversation, Dan Haley, president and CEO of the Colorado Oil and Gas Association, said the industry’s goal is looking to expand operations by sending natural gas produced in the DJ Basin – which runs between northeast Colorado and southeast Wyoming – to more trading partners around the world.
Colorado is the 7th largest producer of natural gas in the country, Haley said, citing U.S. Energy Information Administration data. And as of 2019 the industry directly employed about 39,000 people in Colorado, though Haley noted that number fell nearly a quarter in the last two years.
In-home use accounts for about 15% of total gas consumption in the country, according to the EIA. About 4% of that consumption goes toward cooking.
The study in question, published last month by Colorado-based RMI (formerly called the Rocky Mountain Institute), found that 12.7% of childhood asthma cases can be attributed to gas stoves.
Nicole Schomburg, a senior director at FTI Consulting, which advocates for the oil and gas industry said the study used a questionable methodology and cherry-picked its data.
But Brady Seals, manager of RMI’s Carbon-Free Buildings program and one of the study’s authors, said that’s untrue.
“The paper was peer-reviewed,” Seals said.
That means RMI’s work is open to the scrutiny and vetting of other scientists in the field across the world.
“We used a previously peer-reviewed methodology… and a previously peer-reviewed meta-analysis, which aggregates all studies done on the issue,” Seals continued.
Dr. Jon Samet, dean of the Colorado School of Public Health, took no issue with the way the study came together.
“That kind of analysis we do all the time,” Samet said. “The methodology is just fine.”
Samet added that there’s no doubt gas stoves emit nitrogen dioxide, which the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency notes can aggravate respiratory diseases, leading to coughing, wheezing or difficulty breathing. The gas also “may contribute to the development of asthma,” the agency says.
“We know that a fairly high concentration plume can come off that somebody may breathe for some minutes,” Samet said. “There can be some peaks that are pretty high and right in the breathing zone.”
Schomburg, whose company works with the Independent Petroleum Association of America, also noted that the RMI study doesn’t prove that gas stoves specifically cause asthma, a point seized on by conservative outlets like the Washington Examiner.
The American Gas Association leaned on the same argument.
But Seals said the study never claimed to prove that gas stoves cause asthma, rather it increases the risk for the illness.
“We have enough evidence that there’s a strong relationship between gas stoves and childhood asthma,” Seals said. “It’s not saying if you have a gas stove, you’re going to get asthma. It’s saying you have a higher chance, a higher risk of asthma.”
Samet said his research in the 1980s and 1990s showed no relationship between nitrogen dioxide levels and a rate of respiratory infections but noted that he didn’t examine asthma, which is a chronic illness, for that study. There could be a link between the gas and asthma, Samet said, but he said the term “asthma” could mean a few different things and the development is dependent on many factors, like genetics, so more research is needed to make a definitive statement.
Samet pointed to a resolution that the American Medical Association passed in May, which warned “that the use of gas stoves increases household air pollution and the risk of childhood asthma and asthma severity.”
That risk could be reduced, the AMA’s resolution says, by reducing the use of gas stoves, proper ventilation and the use of air filters.
Both Schomburg and Seals agreed that appropriate ventilation improves air quality around stoves.
But whether people have access to appropriate ventilation appliances is another matter, Seals noted.
Strong pushback from the gas industry – in Colorado and across the rest of the country – looks to downplay recent research critical of gas appliances while also highlighting their benefits. Gas stoves are generally more affordable to use and enjoy a loyal customer base.
The national debate continues to swirl around gas stoves and it has even morphed into something of a culture war between conservatives and liberals. But the RMI study doesn’t appear to have sparked any immediate efforts to ban the appliances in Colorado.
A Denver city councilman will launch a conversation next month about whether the city should phase out gas appliances with new homes but that’s a continuation of the Energize Denver initiative, which predates the RMI study by years. The councilman, Jolon Clark, also noted that city officials are not currently looking to ban gas appliances in existing homes.