Future Tense

The Real Stakes of the Gas Stove Debate

Two lit gas stove burners.
Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Gas stoves might be starting to flame out. In recent weeks, public discourse about one long-time beloved household appliance has become a bit messy and, frankly, silly: In late December, Richard Trumka Jr., a member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, spoke on a U.S. Public Interest Research Group webinar about the growing body of research demonstrating the harms gas stoves pose to human health. He then stated that the CPSC had a plan to solicit expert and public comment on the issue in March. All fine so far.

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Then, on Monday, Trumka chatted with Bloomberg about the topic and declared that “Any option is on the table. Products that can’t be made safe can be banned,” prompting the outlet to run with the headline “US Safety Agency to Consider Ban on Gas Stoves Amid Health Fears.” Other sites went with that narrative, and the discourse blew up like, well, a hazardous gas stove. National Review ran seven (count ’em) stories on Wednesday alone. The writers behind the climate-skeptical Doomberg newsletter echoed one Review staffer’s conspiracy theory that there was some sudden, coordinated effort to indoctrinate the American sheeple, perhaps on behalf of the heat pump lobby. Even Tucker Carlson and Sen. Joe Manchin joined in on the fun. The sound and fury seemed to signify nothing less than manhood’s end, and Trumka was forced to clarify that a ban is not actually impending, as was President Joe Biden. Hank Hill, that lovable salesman of propane and propane accessories, must have been quaking with rage. (Although it turns out he may own an electric stove himself?)

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Here’s the thing: None of this is new, or a part of a nefarious plot. For years, studies have been revealing the harmful effects of gas stoves on both health and the climate, despite misinformation from the natural gas industry. Growing scientific and public health consensus around this fact has already spurred governmental action (and Republican pushback) at the municipal and countywide level. Berkeley, California, became the first U.S. city to ban gas hookups in newly constructed housing (not taking gas stoves from existing homes) in 2019, and now New York wants to be the first to do so at the state level. The Biden administration, as part of its federal electrification initiative, is refurbishing government buildings to go electric, and encouraging homeowners to switch out their gas stoves for electric models through Inflation Reduction Act incentives. Heck, a lot of red states are already there. Twenty members of Congress sent a letter to the CPSC last year asking the agency to probe gas-appliance risks.

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To talk through the tangible risks of gas stoves, the benefits of going electric, and what means consumers have at their disposal to improve the impacts of their cooking on climate and health, I spoke with Brady Seals, a manager for the Rocky Mountain Institute’s Carbon-Free Buildings Program and the co-author of a 2020 report on how gas stoves affect air quality and health. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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Nitish Pahwa: What made you start studying gas stoves and the way they affect health and climate?

Brady Seals: I spent about 11 years working around the world in places where people were still burning wood and charcoal, and trying to help transition to cleaner fuels. I would get back from these trips and turn on my gas stove and not think about it. Gas was considered a clean fuel at the time, so when I got the job at RMI, we were interested in all-electric homes and businesses for climate reasons. But when we started talking to experts on air quality and health, we kept hearing, “There’s this health issue that’s been around for a while. It hasn’t gotten a lot of attention.”

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So about three years ago, along with partners, we did a deep dive into the research to find out exactly what it says. I think I was skeptical, as many people are—if this is such a bad, harmful device in our homes, why don’t we know about it? But what we found is that there is a robust body of literature going back 50 years. The first study I saw was from 1973. There is strong evidence on the health links between gas stove pollution and human health, most notably for children. We’re approaching it from a climate and health angle because gas stoves have an outsize health impact, but may have a smaller climate impact when compared with your other gas appliances. Plus, I think the health studies, especially on the children’s side, really resonate with people.

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How would you describe the scale of gas stoves’ effect on climate?

There are about 70 million buildings in the U.S. that burn fossil fuels. In some places, buildings account for 10 percent of U.S. emissions, which is a lot. Breaking it down, space heating accounts for 68 percent of those emissions, and water heating is about 20 percent. When you get down to cooking and appliances like clothes dryers, it’s 13 percent, so it’s a much smaller perspective.

However, new research from Stanford and physicians, scientists, and engineers has found that gas stoves actually leak methane when they’re off and when they’re on. About 1 percent of the gas delivered to your stove would be leaking as unburned methane, which doesn’t sound like a lot, but if you add up 1 percent across 40 million stoves [in the U.S.], they found it has the same climate impact as about half a million cars on the road.

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When you started putting out your findings and insights into the health impacts of stoves, what were outside reactions like at first?

I think we want to believe all Americans love their gas stoves, but only 35 percent of us have gas stoves. That means 65 percent of America is cooking with electricity, and electric stoves are more common than we think. It probably depends on where you live: The South is so electrified already, and 1 in 4 homes is all-electric across the country.

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I know this isn’t within the sphere of your research, but I wonder what you think it is that gets people so personally attached to their stoves?

When I worked on wood and charcoal, people used to say: “No one is ever going to switch from cooking with wood.” But I can tell you one thing that was the same, whether it was in Mozambique, Haiti, or the U.S.: If you have a better product and it saves people time, they will go for it. When you see people cooking for the first time on an induction stove, people love it. It’s like the future of cooking is here—it’s such a different experience.

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How much do you think the natural gas industry’s information campaigns have influenced people’s perceptions of gas stoves, even in light of all this other evidence?

There’s been a lot of creativity from the gas industry’s side. The electric side I don’t think compares at all with the amount of marketing and money that the gas industry has put into this. I do think it makes sense that for most people, what you see is what you know, what you cook with is what you know. You go into a Home Depot or a Best Buy, you see a lot of gas stoves, and you’re lucky to see an induction stove. It’s about 5 percent market share.

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And to be fair, gas helped us get off coal. That was great, for the climate and for our health. We actually did that pretty quickly.

That was a ’70s initiative, right? With deregulation under the Carter administration.

Exactly, and natural gas was more available. So within a 40-year time period, America went from heating homes with coal to gas because there was a better alternative. I think the time has come now for another switch, with what we know about climate change and health. Natural gas is having the moment that coal had, and we have the better alternatives like electric stoves, induction stoves, heat pumps, and the grid is getting a lot cleaner. And it’s only been within the last couple years that we’ve seen a real focus from policymakers on all-electric buildings.

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There’s this argument that proper ventilation can help mitigate the more harmful effects and the indoor pollution from gas stoves. But a lot of people don’t have that unless they’re of higher income or have room to set that up. So there’s this choice: We keep this gas stove forever and make it work by adding ventilation to outside, or we can go electric. How do you think about the ways to balance cost, maintenance, and longevity in making that decision?

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Ventilation is one of the trickiest things. All of our other appliances have to be vented outside, but the gas stove does not universally have to be vented outside. We know lots of people don’t have ventilation, and the people who do have ventilation, it’s often not effective. Also, a lot of these range hoods don’t actually reach over your front burners where, I would imagine, a lot of people do their cooking. I usually cook on the front burners, but we know that it’s a lot more effective to cook on the back. And tests on range hoods actually find they’re not all that effective at removing or reducing pollutants.

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The third issue is that even if people have ventilation, they often don’t use it: It’s noisy, or you don’t feel like you need it. Before my research, I would only turn my range hood on if I was visibly burning something and seeing and smelling smoke. But we should be using these all the time.

It is wild to me that the one protection item we have for the gas stove is so imperfect that it’s not always bundled with the stove or required for it. And we don’t have mandatory performance standards for gas stoves. That is mind-blowing. Think about all the products you have in your apartment that had to meet some kind of performance standard. We know your gas stove emits all these pollutants and can leak methane and benzene when it’s off.

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I do think that some voluntary processes, like ventilation, are more challenging. And for health researchers, this field is not their full-time job, so they may do a couple studies, get peer-reviewed, and that’s it. That’s why we need agencies to do basic things like set mandatory performance standards, place warning labels, and launch educational campaigns so people know about these risks.

A lot of induction products are way more expensive; cheaper electric models may not be as long-lasting or as sturdy. The Inflation Reduction Act offers a lot of credits and incentives for electrifying buildings and trying to get to cleaner sources of household energy. If a consumer is worried about their gas stove and wants to make a switch, but may not be the most moneyed person out there, what are their options right now?

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I’m so glad you brought that up. It’s true, induction stoves have such a limited market and that adds to the affordability piece. I do think that’s changing now with some of the models—I have an electric smooth-top stove. But if you have a gas stove now and you’re worried about the health risks, there are a couple things you can do. You can try to ventilate your surroundings. The range hoods are imperfect, but if you even open up a window while cooking for five minutes, that can help disperse some of the pollutants. The next step would be to try to displace some of your gas cooking: using electric kettles or Instant Pots or toaster ovens. I was talking to Michael Thomas from the newsletter Distilled, and he told me that he’s displaced like 80 percent of his cooking from his gas stove by using those devices.

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A gateway piece is trying a plug-in induction stove—if you’ve never tried induction, it’s a great opportunity to see if you like it. You can get a single or a double burner and plug it in. Also, there are some super creative ways people have turned their gas stove into an induction stove: They put a butcher block or sheet pans on top of their burners, then they plug in their induction and cook on top of the stove or turn the rest of the stovetop into more counter space. You can actually do a lot of cooking on those kind of burners.

Thankfully we have now the Inflation Reduction Act, which provides up to $840 for any kind of electric stove, so that could be an electric smooth-top or induction stove. If you want to go induction, sometimes that requires you to change your outlet to a 220 volt, which will require some upgrades to your wiring or your panel. The Inflation Reduction Act also has incentives for that.

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A lot of these incentives are targeted at homeowners, but is there anything renters might be able to do other than hoping to move?

I’m not sure if you saw the petition to HUD, but in public housing or places where people are renters, residents don’t make decisions about their energy-use source. So we feel like it’s the responsibility of policymakers to put that in place. Gas stove pollution is a health equity issue, an environmental justice issue. Any policies that are going to move us to electric cooking should be prioritizing these communities.

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Is there anything that can be done from the manufacturing end, from the government end, from some piece of legislation, that can help spur more and better production of electric and induction?

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I know the government is using the Defense Production Act to make more heat pumps, so that could be a model. But it’s even a struggle to get a carbon monoxide detector into public housing—all these budgets are really tight. We did a paper a little while ago that talked about whole-home retrofits, so if you’re doing lead remediation or something like that, you can change out the stove or ventilation at that time, because I know that’s also a challenge in public housing: doing all these things piece by piece instead of at the same time.

There’s also the option of bulk purchases. New York state wanted more efficient refrigerators for low-income housing. They did a bulk purchase and the price was much lower; they changed out all these refrigerators, and they saved a huge amount of energy. The energy savings essentially helped to pay for this. A gas stove is around 40 percent efficient, an induction stove is around 90 percent efficient, and electric is somewhere in the 80 percent, so you get huge energy gains. Of course, utility and gas costs vary so widely. But at least from the energy-efficiency side, that should be a rationale for a large property owner.

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We’ve been talking a lot about residential households, but another frontier in this is commercial businesses, especially restaurants. There’s a not-insignificant number of chefs who have big gas setups and prefer those. How do we even begin to address that side of it?

We have a lot less health data on commercial kitchens and restaurants. I have heard from some people, like chef Chris Galarza, about cooking in gas kitchens where the heat is so pressing—there are other health impacts, even if we may not have the emissions data. Commercial kitchens are required to have better ventilation systems, so that’s great. What we don’t know is how well they’re working, since we don’t have the data on that.

But I think climate-minded chefs want to do this switch to induction. There was that New York Times piece where Melissa Clark interviewed Eric Ripert, who cooks at home with induction, loves it, but says it would be expensive to switch his restaurants from gas. But if it’s time to do that, then he would consider it. Making sure that these incentives are available for restaurants and kitchens that want to switch too is really key, so hopefully we get more data on that.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.

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