Earlier this year, a political firestorm erupted after a member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) suggested they might consider regulating indoor air pollution from gas stoves. Later, following an uproar about government overreach, the agency clarified that they did not intend to outright ban gas burners. But what does the science say?
In the middle of the controversy, the news media sought out expert guidance on the related health risks. They turned to Darby Jack, associate professor of environmental health sciences, who has studied indoor air pollution for more than a decade.
Most of Jack’s work has centered in West Africa, where wood is the main biomass used for cooking. His research focused on the health impacts of exposure to wood smoke, as well as the potential for low-emission cookstove alternatives. More recently, he led research in Ecuador, where the government is subsidizing the transition away from using cooking gas.
Closer to home, Jack has partnered with the Harlem-based environmental justice group WE ACT on a study called Out of Gas, In with Justice. They replaced gas stoves with induction stoves in 20 households in affordable housing in Buffalo and the Bronx and monitored the subsequent changes in indoor air quality and rates of asthma. Study results reported by WE ACT found that NO2 concentration when cooking with gas stoves increased to an average of 197 ppb-nearly double the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency’s 100ppb outdoor limit above which is classified as “unhealthy for sensitive groups.” Over a ten-month period, households with electric stoves experienced a 35 percent reduction in daily NO2 concentrations compared to those who used gas stoves. Participants also prefer their new stoves to their older gas version, citing ease of use and cooking quality.
Their intervention aligns with research consensus on the health risks of exposure to NO2 from gas stoves. A recent study suggests that gas stoves contribute to about 13 percent of childhood asthma cases in the U.S.-equivalent to the risk of developing asthma due to exposure to secondhand smoke. NO2 can cause respiratory problems, particularly for those with asthma or other respiratory illnesses, and long-term exposure to NO2 from gas stoves has also been linked to an increased risk of developing heart disease.
While replacing gas stoves is expensive, Jack says low-income communities shouldn’t be left behind in the transition to cleaner energy sources. Subsidies of the kind offered in Ecuador are needed. While a federal ban on gas stoves isn’t likely anytime soon, New York Governor Kathy Hochul recently said her goal was for New York to become the first state in the nation to outlaw the use of natural gas heating and appliances in newly constructed buildings. New York City, Los Angeles, and Seattle have also imposed restrictions on natural gas consumption in certain new residences. The Inflation Reduction Act, a recently enacted federal climate act, offers refunds of up to $840 for the purchase of an electric stove or oven.
These policies have largely been driven by a desire to reduce fossil fuel emissions in line with climate goals. “A lot of the justifications for these transitions in the United States is driven by climate, and I think that health is sort of a companion benefit,” Jack explains. Perhaps the recent gas stove controversy will help make a case by building awareness about the related health risks.
In speaking with news media like the Guardian, Jack shared the science on the health risks of gas stoves while explaining that there is no reason to panic. “Nobody needs to rush out and take urgent action or be worried they’re going to die tomorrow because of their cooking with gas,” he says, adding that ventilation minimizes exposure. “If you have a good hood that ventilates to the outdoors, that probably gets you most of the way in terms of reducing the risk for NO2 exposure, but you need to use it.” No matter what stove technology is used, it’s important to avoid breathing cooking smoke, as all cooking smoke comes with its own health risks.
At a population level, particularly for those in vulnerable populations, transitioning away from gas stoves would improve population health at the aggregate level, as well as the individual level with people with asthma and other respiratory diseases, Jack notes. At the same time, this transition would play a role in reducing fossil fuel emissions.
“It’s an important piece of the decarbonization puzzle,” says Jack. “It’s not the biggest piece, but it’s an important one because there are opportunities to deliver both greenhouse gas emission reduction benefits and short-term immediate health benefits by reducing indoor exposure to NO2.”