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6-burner gas stove. Image credit: SubZero

Air Quality

Gas Stove Culture War Boils Over: What Did The Industry Know, & When Did They Know It?

The gas stove war is heating up, led by the American Gas Association, which says the latest health research is flawed.

I live with a foodie who enjoys cooking and has an extensive background in restaurants. She loves cooking on a gas stove for several reasons. First, almost every recognized chef prefers to cook on a gas stove. Second, she appreciates the precision of a gas stove. Turn the flame up and the pan gets hotter instantly. Turn the flame down and food cooks more slowly. With most electric stoves, it takes minutes for them to heat up and controlling the temperature is iffy under the best of circumstances. When my wife and I remodeled our kitchen a decade ago, a 6-burner professional gas stove was its central feature. We ran a B&B at the time and she loved cooking for guests on that stove. It was her pride and joy.

Gas Stove Bans Proliferate

Several states and cities have banned the installation of new gas stoves and furnaces for two reasons. First, they create carbon dioxide that contributes to global heating. Second, they introduce harmful oxides of nitrogen into homes that are associated with illnesses in children, especially asthma. A new scientific study by RMI (formerly known at the Rocky Mountain Institute), the University of Sydney, and the Albert Einstein College of Medicine finds that “nearly 13 percent of childhood asthma cases in the United States can be linked to having a gas stove in the home.” Here is the introduction to the study.

“Indoor gas stove use for cooking is associated with an increased risk of current asthma among children and is prevalent in 35% of households in the United States, with certain states (e.g., California, Illinois) reaching 68%. Although children’s exposure to gas cooking is widespread, the population-level implications of cooking with gas are largely unrecognized. With this background, we attempted to quantify the population-attributable fraction (PAF) for gas stove use and current childhood asthma in the US, including at the state level, which had never been done. The PAF can be helpful for determining the proportion of preventable disease and may guide public health interventions that aim to reduce disease risk.”

After a discussion of the methodology used in the study, the researchers reported,

“We found that 12.7% of current childhood asthma in the US is attributable to gas stove use. At the state level, the proportion of childhood asthma that could be theoretically prevented if gas stove use was not present (e.g., state-specific PAFs) varied. Illinois experiences the highest burden (21.1%), followed by California (20.1%), New York (18.8%), Massachusetts (15.4%), and Pennsylvania (13.5%). Texas, Colorado, and Ohio all experience burdens around 10%. Florida experiences the lowest burden (3%). The state-level PAFs differ due to varying exposure to gas stoves among children. In Illinois, for example, approximately 79.1% of households with children cook with gas, whereas in Florida, the figure is only 9.1%. States with a higher percentage of children living in households with gas stoves have higher proportions of current childhood asthma attributable to gas stove usage.”

Industry Blowback Is Swift

Predictably, the methane gas industry has been quick to denounce the study. The American Gas Association trade group called the findings “not substantiated by sound science,” and added that “any discussion” of a possible connection between asthma and the use of gas for cooking was “reckless.” Really? One might think that any attempt to gloss over a significant risk to the health of our children could be called reckless but the fossil fuel industry in general has been gaslighting the world about the risks associated with the use of its “products” for generations so the response from the AGA is no surprise.

What is a surprise is that Desmog has uncovered documentary evidence that the American Gas Association was studying the health and indoor pollution risks from gas stoves as far back as the early 1970s. In 1972, it authored a draft report that focused on indoor air pollution concerns similar to those raised by health experts and regulators today. In particular, this draft report examined what to do about problems related to the emission of carbon monoxide and nitrogen oxides from domestic gas appliances.

The draft was discovered recently in the U.S. National Archives and would eventually become an official report published by the National Industrial Pollution Control Council, a long forgotten government advisory council composed of the nation’s most powerful industrialists.

Desmog says the NIPCC was established by President Richard Nixon as part of an executive order in April, 1970. NIPCC was supposed to be an external advisory council that reported to the President and the White House Council on Environmental Quality via the Secretary of Commerce. It was composed of 200 of the nation’s top business executives who contributed to the NIPCC under the guise of assisting the government’s new anti-pollution efforts.

In practice, however, it provided the country’s biggest polluters with a privileged channel of access and influence over government policy as well as a valuable launchpad for public relations campaigns. Industry cooperation with government in areas of research and policy making was common in the decades prior to the 1970s, but the NIPCC represented a new pinnacle in corporate-government collaboration. Public interest watchdog Ralph Nader called the NIPCC “a Who’s Who of American polluters.”

Prior to the 1970s, research on laboratory animals had already linked NO2 exposure with greater susceptibility to respiratory infection, while high exposures had been found to cause pulmonary edema and death. In 1970, a study by the government’s National Air Pollution Control Administration found that increases in respiratory illnesses in Tennessee schoolchildren could be attributed to higher than normal outdoor NO2exposure.

NIPCC included an eight-member Utilities Sub-Council comprised of the CEOs and presidents of major gas and electric companies. Two years before AGA prepared its draft report, records show these industry leaders had gathered at a Sub-Council meeting to discuss how to manage air pollution concerns. Minutes from the September 28, 1970 meeting, found in the National Archives, reveal that they agreed that “the need for industry to show what they are doing about pollution is pressing. It was suggested that the gas industry take a look at the NOx problem.”

That draft report detailed the perceived pollution benefits of using gas to power every aspect of American homes. Nevertheless, it simultaneously acknowledged that the industry would need to undergo significant changes in “gas distribution, utilization, and venting systems” to fit with the better insulated (and therefore draft-free) modern housing of the 1970s that allowed pollutants to build up inside the home. The theoretical solution to this, according to the draft, was properly designed and operated exhaust systems that could prevent harmful levels of nitrogen oxides and other indoor air pollutants and keep gas-powered appliances “within pollution limits.”

All reference to pollution or health issues associated with burning methane gas inside homes was deleted from the final report submitted to the Secretary of Commerce and the President. Gee, what a surprise!

The Gas Stove Takeaway

These revelations by Desmog are only the latest in a long line of disclosures that document the unrelenting efforts by fossil fuel companies to down play the health and climate risks of their products and the cozy relationship between industry and regulators that has existed in Washington, DC for decades. Part of the AGA mission in the 70s was to paint itself as a “clean” alternative to coal. That means Donald Trump was wrong. There was no “war on coal” promoted by the government. The “war on coal” was created by the methane and electricity industries. The AGA today is still working to convince people to burn more methane gas because it has fewer carbon emissions than coal when burned. They conveniently forget to mention that huge amounts of methane get released into the atmosphere by the methane merchants.

This reminds of us of the old line about how do tell if lobbyists are lying? The answer is, “Their lips are moving.” You can put lipstick on a pig, but it’s still a pig and methane is a climate killer no matter how many glossy brochures and press releases the industry puts out. The answer then and the answer now is the same. We must stop burning fossil fuels if the human race is to survive.

If you think killing your customers is not a good long term business plan, you’re right. But that assumes these companies think rationally. They don’t. They can’t see beyond the next quarterly report and their lavish executive compensation packages. There’s a name for people like that. Can you think what it is?

 
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Written By

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."

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