The Straight Skinny On Gas Stoves & Indoor Pollution

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In America today, about half the citizenry swallows all the cock and bull stories they find on Faux News and believes every word, even though when push comes to shove, Faux on-air personalities testify under oath they are running a right wing version of Comedy Central and that no one with the IQ of a kumquat would mistake their programming for actual news. The latest kerfluffle to sweep through the reactionary community concerns attempts in some jurisdictions to curb the use of gas stoves for cooking.

It’s an outrage! It’s government overreach! It’s a communist plot! It’s an attack on our way of life! Rather than join in the screaming match, researchers in the Bronx — one of the five boroughs of New York City — decided to do some actual scientific testing to see what exactly happens when people cook indoors on gas stoves. The results may surprise you.

Take Our Gas Stoves, Please!

We Act For Environmental Justice, a non-profit based in New York City, recently conducted an experiment at a public housing facility in the Bronx where all 96 units were equipped with a gas stove. Twenty households participated in the experiment, in which half had their gas stove replaced with an induction stove which uses electricity to heat the cookware directly and doesn’t emit any pollutants while in operation.

Researchers performed a controlled cooking test and found the baseline level of nitrogen oxide, which forms in the air when fossil fuels are burned, in the homes with gas stoves was 18 parts per billion. But when the stoves were in use, the average spiked to 197 parts per billion, according to The Guardian. In the homes with induction stoves, the observed NO2 level was 11 parts per billion and rose a statistically irrelevant 3 ppb during cooking.

197 ppb is almost twice the level the EPA considers unhealthy for people with respiratory illnesses, seniors, and young children when cooking outdoors. Oddly enough, the EPA has established no standard for indoor air pollution, even though the vast majority of cooking takes place indoors. Long-term exposure to NO2 can exacerbate asthma, lung disease and increase the risk of respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses, according to the EPA. The testing took place over a period of ten months, during which households with the induction stoves experienced a 35% drop in daily NO2 concentrations.

“Switching from gas to induction stoves significantly improves indoor air quality, and reduces exposure to both nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide — two pollutants that have adverse health impacts,” said Annie Carforo, WE ACT’s Climate Justice Campaigns Coordinator, who led the research program. “Residents living in low income communities and communities of color like the Bronx are already exposed to disproportionate levels of air pollution. Reducing the pollution in their homes — given that we all spend around 90 percent of our time indoors — is a significant benefit to their health.”

“One of our participants who has asthma said that when she would turn on the gas stove she would always start coughing. She noticed that now with the induction stove, that doesn’t happen. Her assumption is that it was the gas that was leading to that reaction and she does feel a sense of relief knowing when she turns her induction stove on she’s not breathing in air pollutants that are exacerbating her asthma,” Carforo added. Columbia University and Berkeley Air Monitoring Group also participated in the research.

Anxiety Over Gas Stoves

In the focus group conducted by Columbia University researchers, all participants said that one of their greatest fears around gas stoves was their homes catching fire due to a gas leak, a stove malfunction, or the gas not being turned off properly. Participants overwhelmingly preferred cooking with induction stoves and at the end of the study no one asked to return to gas. The entire building is scheduled to be fully electrified soon by the New York City housing authority, which was also a partner in the pilot program.

“Intervention studies such as this one are important to determine the benefits of electrification, especially for people living in lower-income housing who are most at risk,” Rob Jackson, a professor of earth system science at Stanford University, who was not involved in the New York program, told The Guardian.

A recent study he co-authored revealed that gas stoves are constantly emitting methane even when turned off. “I’m not surprised to see higher NO2 measured in homes cooking over gas stoves compared with induction stoves. I’m also not surprised to see NO2 concentrations rise quickly above safe thresholds. Gas stoves pollute more than electric stoves, especially compared to newer induction technologies.”

Households buying a new induction stove can apply for credits and rebates available in the Inflation Reduction Act, but those incentives leave out low-income renters who often do not have a choice about the appliances supplied by their landlords. A similar gas stove study is in the works in multi-family housing units in Buffalo, New York, with data collection expected to begin this year.

“We should always be using the cleanest energy we have access to,” said Darby Jack, an associate professor of environmental health at Columbia University and one of the authors of the report about the research program in the Bronx. “For a long time, induction electric was really expensive and the cost of induction stoves has come way down.”

Other Sources Of NO2 Pollution

While air quality improvements in induction households were significant, the pilot study found that NO2 from other sources — which could include a building’s gas powered boiler in the basement, cars traveling on adjacent streets, or neighboring apartments with gas stoves — continued to impact household air quality. “Due to the discovery of air pollution from other sources, we believe that whole building conversions that bundle short term improvements like stoves with larger retrofit projects will have the greatest impact on indoor air quality and resident health in an urban setting,” Carforo added.

“Reducing our exposure to harmful air pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide is a public health necessity. It also helps reduce greenhouse gas emissions, with approximately 70 percent of New York City’s emissions coming from burning fossil fuels in buildings,” explained Sonal Jessel, the director of policy at We Act for Environmental Justice. “That is why we urge attention to this public health crisis. Low income people and people of color to deserve to breathe clean air, including inside their homes, and right now their choices are limited.”

The Takeaway

Wouldn’t you expect at least one of the people who switched to an induction stove would have asked for the old gas stove back? The fact that not one person did is as important as all the scientific measurements of parts per billion and so forth. The hysteria over gas stove restrictions is fueled (no pun intended) by the companies that make their living from supplying methane gas to public and private consumers.

Socrates once said, “The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new.” The reactionaries in America are like mules, digging in their heels and demanding the right to breathe fumes that make them and their families sick. Logic and reason have no impact on their thinking. For the rest of us, studies like this one in the Bronx should be all we need to move on from old technology that endangers our health and get busy building the new.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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