A look at the environmental and health effects associated with gas stoves

Science

There's been a heated debate lately about gas stoves and potential government regulation. The fire was lit last week after a member of a federal consumer agency suggested the government might ban them in newly built homes. That was quickly shot down by the White House but there's still a new focus on the health impact and possible alternatives. Miles O'Brien reports.

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  • Geoff Bennett:

    There's been quite a bit of heated debate lately about gas stoves and potential government regulation.

    The fire was lit last week after recent studies linked asthma with the use of gas stoves, and a member of a federal consumer agency briefly suggested that perhaps the federal government might even ban them in newly built homes. But that was quickly shut down by the White House.

    Still, there's new focus on the health impact and possible alternatives. In fact, there are even some new government incentives for swapping out older stoves.

    Miles O'Brien has been looking into all of this and has our report.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    Maria Espada was happily cooking without gas long before a political stew started boiling over in Washington.

  • Larry Kudlow, FOX Business Anchor:

    Right now, you have got this campaign by all these left-wing groups to end gas-burning stoves.

  • Speaker:

    Teasing a potential federal ban on gas stoves.

  • Speaker:

    A ban on gas stoves.

  • Speaker:

    The link between your gas stove and childhood asthma.

  • Speaker:

    Gas stoves don't cause asthma. There's no research proving that.

    Chef?

  • Miles O'Brien:

    No ban is currently in the works, but cooking with gas is the latest battle in the culture war.

    Since last year, Maria has used an electric oven with an induction cooktop.

  • Maria Espada, New York Resident:

    Oh, beautiful. And it'll be done very quick.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    It replaced a gas range.

    Maria has lived in this New York City Housing Authority apartment in the Bronx for 44 years.

    When you first heard about an electric stove, did you think, hmm, I like cooking with gas, or were you ready to change?

  • Maria Espada:

    I was not ready. But I thought of one thing, my asthma. Every time I would turn it on, I would start coughing.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    Really?

  • Maria Espada:

    Yes. I would start coughing. So it was the gas.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    Yes.

  • Maria Espada:

    Unfortunately, that's what I noticed. It was the gas.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    She is part of a pilot program hoping to refine the recipe for the big switch away from fossil fuels.

    New York City has committed to reducing its carbon footprint by 80 percent in 2050. And, here, about 70 percent of greenhouse gas emissions come from buildings.

    Annie Carforo, Climate Justice Campaigns Coordinator, WE ACT for Environmental Justice: The electrification of existing buildings is going to be a really complex challenge. And what we don't want to see is communities of color, low income-communities, affordable housing residents being left behind in that transition.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    Annie Carforo is a climate justice campaign coordinator for the nonprofit WE ACT. It is helping study the transition, installing an array of air quality sensors in kitchens with electric and gas appliances.

  • Annie Carforo:

    We're looking to see the change in air quality over six months in this building, and also to study the challenges and opportunities of electrification in affordable housing.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    This has led them to an important conclusion: Methane is a greenhouse gas that harms the climate, but burning it also has a more immediate impact right at home.

  • Annie Carforo:

    The results right now are showing that cooking with gas in apartments leads to incredibly high levels of harmful pollutants that really hurt our health.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    As methane, or natural gas, burns, it triggers a reaction between nitrogen and oxygen, which creates nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, pollutants collectively known as NOx. They cause all sorts of cardiovascular and respiratory illnesses, including asthma.

    The latest study published in December compared data on nationwide asthma rates and gas stove usage, and concluded 12.7 percent of current childhood asthma in the U.S. is attributable to gas stove use.

    No surprise to Rob Jackson.

  • Rob Jackson, Stanford University:

    OK, then put the — we can the fans on the….

  • Speaker:

    On the grounds, close all the windows.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    He is a professor of environmental sciences at Stanford University. He and his team are focused on finding methane wherever it may be. He spends a lot of time sampling the air in kitchens equipped with gas ranges.

  • Rob Jackson:

    We take a series of measurements before we light it. We measure how much methane comes when you turn the thing on and off, that puff. And then we measure how much is coming when the flame is on.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    Jackson's team also samples beyond the kitchen.

  • Rob Jackson:

    The NOx that is generated in the kitchen, not surprisingly, it doesn't stay there. It spreads throughout the house. You get above these thresholds in adjacent bedrooms, where there's no hood and really no expectation that you would find those gases in the air that you breathe.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    In the Bronx, a few floors away from Maria Espada, researcher Misbath Daouda is on her own hunt for indoor air quality data.

    It was lunchtime in Ayanna Kai-Sutton's apartment. She cooks with gas, a Ph.D. candidate in climate and health at Columbia University, Daouda recorded nitrogen dioxide levels nearly 40 times greater than World Health Organization daily guidelines.

  • Misbath Daouda, Columbia University:

    So, if you look at this, the levels here is 500 PPB, which is huge, because…

  • Miles O'Brien:

    That's parts per billion.

  • Misbath Daouda:

    Parts per billion.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    And that's huge?

  • Misbath Daouda:

    It's huge. The WHO guideline for NO2 is about 13 PPB.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    This is also five times greater than the EPA one-hour air standard for NOx.

    But there are no rules in the U.S. governing indoor pollution, even though that is where we spend most of our time.

  • Misbath Daouda:

    People who experience asthma are on the front lines, literally, of climate change, because a lot of the sources of carbon emissions also are producing these pollutants that exacerbate asthma.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    While gas stoves are looking less attractive, electric cooktop technology has learned some new tricks.

    Traditional electric stoves are inefficient. They create heat by simply resisting the electric current. But newer induction cooktops use electricity to create a magnetic field. The electrons inside pots and pans that contain iron try to align with the magnet, vibrating tens of thousands of times per second, creating friction and heat. The result is better energy efficiency, faster cooking, and no combustion fumes.

    So, why are so many Americans and Republican lawmakers still enthralled with gas?

    Narrators Gas!

  • Miles O'Brien:

    For decades, the fossil fuel industry has spent heavily to promote the idea that gas is superior. But it's a bad rap in more ways than one.

  • Actors:

    Cooking with gas. Cooking with gas.

  • Actors:

    We all cook better when we're cooking with gas.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    And here in the Bronx, the word is spreading.

    The study documented a 35 percent reduction in daily nitrogen dioxide concentrations for those who switched from gas to electric. Now that the results are in, Ayanna Kai-Sutton has her new electric range.

  • Ayanna Kai-Sutton, New York Resident:

    I am excited, of course, to get rid of this old-school gas stove and get with the new. And, of course, if there's anything I can do that can, like, make the smallest change in the world, then, of course, I'm going to be down to help.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    It turns out the climate crisis is also an air pollution crisis. If we can stop burning things fast, we can all breathe a little easier.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    And Miles joins us now from his kitchen to answer some more questions about induction stoves.

    Miles, it's great to see you.

    So, let's talk dollars and cents. If someone wants to install an induction cooktop range in their home, how much will it cost?

  • Miles O'Brien:

    All right.

    But before I do that, Geoff, I just want to start the tea kettle water boiling, just so you can see how quickly that happens on an induction stove. We will see that in a second.

    OK, basically, a low-end induction range is about $1,200. A low-end gas range is about $1,000. You might have to upgrade your electricity to 220 or 240. That's going to cost you about $300.

    Now, if you're in a situation where you want to save some money or you you're renting and you can't change out your appliance, you can use something like this. This is a cooking plate, not even a hot plate. It's an actual full-up burner that will do everything that this induction range will do for about 250 bucks.

    There's cheaper ones like this one here. That's about $150. You can actually do that immediately. So there are inexpensive ways to do this, if you're concerned.

    (TEAPOT WHISTLING)

  • Miles O'Brien:

    There you go, boiled water in…

  • Geoff Bennett:

    What was that, 30 seconds?

  • Miles O'Brien:

    About 30 seconds. Not bad, huh?

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Wow. Wow.

    So, Miles, why do professional chefs still use gas? I'm sure a lot of people assume, that if the pros use gas, that's what's best.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    Absolutely.

    As much as any thing, it's tradition, Geoff. And this is a transition we're going through where we're trying to electrify our society in order to address the climate change problem. And, of course, we have an indoor air pollution problem as well.

    But in professional kitchens, there is this assumption that the only way to do it is to light a flame, which is, after all, what caveman did to cook. This is changing. Some of the top restaurants in the world, particularly in Europe and in Asia, are all induction and have been for quite some time.

    There is more resistance here in the U.S. to it. And some of that has to do with the fossil fuel industry doing a pretty effective campaign to convince people that electric is not as good.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Miles, there is some question about the types of pots and pans that work with induction. Tell us more about that.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    Yes, this is an issue that comes up quite a bit. It's cooking with magnetic fields, so it has to have a pot or a pan that is magnetic, or ferrous is the term.

    Everything you see here works just fine because it has some iron in it one way or another. So there's lots of variety out there. You can't use things like this, ceramic, because, obviously, that's not magnetic. And if you have a whole bunch of aluminum pots and pans, you will have to retire those as well.

    But it's not like you have to get some specialized kind of cookware.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    You have a vent hood, it looks like, in your kitchen. Is that necessary for an induction cooktop?

  • Miles O'Brien:

    Not as important as it is with gas.

    But I will tell you this. One of the things that people should think about with — if they're still using a gas stove and continue to do so, use that vent hood. And make sure the vent hood is vented outside, not one of those that recirculates. That's not going to do any good at all. A lot of people don't bother turning on the vent hood.

    That goes a long way to improving the air quality in your kitchen.

  • Geoff Bennett:

    Miles O'Brien, thanks so much for sharing that reporting with us and inviting us into your kitchen. We appreciate it.

  • Miles O'Brien:

    You're welcome, Geoff. Any time.

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A look at the environmental and health effects associated with gas stoves first appeared on the PBS NewsHour website.

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