When the US Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) announced in mid-December it would consider its first-ever health regulations on gas stoves, it was the start of what will be a very long journey to any kind of restrictions — one that will consider public comment, including from the gas industry, in determining the approach. The debate blew up this week, though, when Bloomberg reported the agency was considering a ban.
The agency could pick one of many routes: new performance standards for range hoods to ensure they are filtering out emissions, a requirement that stoves be sold with a ducted hood to vent outside, or, most drastically, a ban on their import and manufacture. “Any option is on the table,” one of the CPSC’s commissioners, Richard Trumka Jr., told Bloomberg.
One option that is not on the table is forcing people to replace existing stoves. The commission’s regulations would only apply to new products. But the announcement triggered an immediate backlash. Americans have a long-standing love affair with the gas stove — one pretty much summed up by Sen. Joe Manchin when he tweeted Tuesday, “I can tell you the last thing that would ever leave my house is the gas stove that we cook on.”
We’re still a long way from the end of the gas stove, which is a feature of 40 million American households, or about 38 percent. If you still prefer gas — whether you buy into the gas industry’s clever marketing, simply think it cooks better than induction, or can’t afford to swap for induction — no one is about to force you to give it up. But in addition to the climate case for becoming less reliant on gas, there is growing concern about the potential health risks of gas as a source of indoor air pollution. That worrying science is the very reason the CPSC is looking at the machine in the first place.
Gas stoves are a worrying source of indoor pollution and a cause of childhood asthma
When the stove or oven clicks on, it starts by spilling out pure natural gas (which is really just methane, the world’s second-most problematic greenhouse gas). Once the burner is on, there are other pollutants accumulating in your kitchen, too, including carbon monoxide and formaldehyde. The biggest concern is nitrogen dioxide, which causes cardiovascular problems and respiratory disease; it can make people, especially children, more likely to develop asthma. The pollutant can cause inflammation of the airways, coughing and wheezing, increased asthma attacks in everyone, and at dangerously high levels (over 200 parts per billion) the EPA warns everyone to limit their exposure. At these levels, children, older adults, and people with lung disease should avoid any exposure.
Nitrogen oxides are a byproduct of burning methane, so the gas stove or oven is working exactly as it’s meant to when producing this pollutant. Outside, the EPA would consider the level of NO2 produced by the stove illegal. Inside, though, there is no regulation.
And research spanning decades finds that nitrogen dioxide is at high levels when a gas stove and oven are in use. As early as the 1980s, the CPSC was aware of the health concerns associated with gas stoves, and so was the EPA. Indoor air quality scientists, like Shelly Miller, an environmental engineer at the University of Colorado Boulder, have told me the community has been aware of the risks since at least the 1990s. “Cooking,” she’s said, “is the No. 1 way you’re polluting your home. It is causing respiratory and cardiovascular health problems; it can exacerbate flu and asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in children.”
The growing evidence and public pressure led the American Medical Association to adopt the resolution this fall that recognizes “the association between the use of gas stoves, indoor nitrogen dioxide levels and asthma.” A December report published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health estimated that almost 13 percent of childhood asthma cases in the US are caused by gas stove use, similar to the level caused by second-hand smoke. It’s a level that “could be theoretically prevented if gas stove use was not present,” the report noted.
The American Gas Association has pushed back hard against this research, pointing to a 2013 Lancet Respiratory Medicine study on 500,000 children in 47 countries that “detected no evidence of an association between the use of gas as a cooking fuel and either asthma symptoms or asthma diagnosis.” (The 2013 study relied on self-reported questionnaires, and the co-author went on to tell E&E News that his other research linked asthma to gas cooking.)
“Attempts to generate consumer fears with baseless allegations to justify the banning of natural gas is a misguided agenda that will not improve the environment or the health of consumers and would saddle vulnerable populations with significant cost,” the trade group said in a statement.
The industry points to ventilation as the solution for gas stove pollution, and says that all cooking, even on an electric burner or the modern induction equivalent, produces particulate matter that should be ventilated.
The study on asthma prevalence found ventilation decreases the risk but doesn’t eliminate it — and gas stoves are not required to be vented to the outside, the gold standard for reducing NO2 emissions. These systems are more common to find in restaurant kitchens, which have more stringent health and safety oversight than people’s homes do. Gas stoves aren’t required to be sold with the hood, and many homes simply don’t have a fan at all.
If you have a gas stove, it’s important to increase ventilation: Turn on the range hood if you have one (those fans many people have attached below the microwave are less ideal than a ducted hood because it’s not vented outside). Lacking that, using fans, air filters, and opening a window can help some. Some consumers might opt for buying a plug-in induction hot plate, or can look for smaller electrification fixes like electric kettles and toaster ovens to minimize stove and oven use.
The gas industry is committed to defending its product at all costs. In an email from 2021, one executive, Sue Kristjansson, who is now president of Berkshire Gas, said it was important not to even give an inch to the stoves’ critics: “If we wait to promote natural gas stoves until we have scientific data that they are not causing any air quality issues we’ll be done.”
The fate of the gas stove may not ultimately be determined by science, but gas industry pushback
The natural gas industry has a strong incentive to ensure there is never any CPSC regulation. Not because cooking itself is a particularly big profit margin for the industry; its real profit centers are gas furnaces and water heaters, which do face regulations to vent outside, contributing less to bad indoor air quality and more to outdoor pollution. Instead, they want to ensure Americans continue their emotional attachment to the stove, which keeps them hooked on gas.
The CPSC is looking at stoves as a health issue, but cities and states have also been looking at reducing their use from another angle: climate change. Buildings are responsible for about 13 percent of US greenhouse gas emissions, and most of that is because of the gas combustion used to power water heaters, heating, and cooking. Climate activists have launched campaigns throughout the country trying to get buildings off of gas, though all of the citywide and statewide initiatives so far have only looked at ensuring new construction runs on electricity, rather than the gargantuan task of remodeling existing buildings.
The gas industry has popped up in every one of these fights, disputing the science on gas stoves and launching elaborate PR campaigns to stop activists from gaining ground. The gas industry has hired social media influencers to extoll the virtues of gas cooking in key battlegrounds, and hired a firm where an employee posed as a concerned neighbor on Nextdoor to start a local protest over electrification.
It will be a long road to regulation at a federal level. If you live in California or New York, you might see some action city- or statewide first, as they electrify new buildings and set standards for gas stove sales. In the meantime, homeowners and building operators can choose to take advantage of the newly available federal tax credits and rebates for electrifying the home — or not. The Inflation Reduction Act offers subsidies for induction ranges, all aimed at boosting home efficiency and cutting fossil fuel reliance.
The CPSC, already walking back some of Trumka’s initial statements, is likely to settle on a compromise approach. A report from New York University Policy Integrity this spring detailed some of those options, including requiring that stoves be sold with hoods, establishing performance standards for those hoods, or equipping gas stoves with sensors that alert the user of pollution concentrations.
“No one’s going to walk into their kitchen tomorrow morning and find a hole where the gas range used to be,” the NYU report co-author, Jack Lienke, said. “The bottom line is that Congress created the CPSC to ensure that consumer products — including home appliances — are reasonably safe. A growing body of evidence indicates that gas stoves aren’t. If the Commission ignored this reality, it wouldn’t be doing its job.”
Correction, January 12, 10 am ET: An earlier version of this article misidentified Richard Trumka as the head of the CPSC. He is one of its commissioners.