Legend has it that in the 1930s, when lots of Americans still cooked with wood or coal, an advertising executive came up with a catchy way to promote natural gas for cooking. Deke Houlgate worked for …
Legend has it that in the 1930s, when lots of Americans still cooked with wood or coal, an advertising executive came up with a catchy way to promote natural gas for cooking. Deke Houlgate worked for the American Gas Association and had lots of contacts in the entertainment business, so he pitched the team writing Bob Hope’s radio shows to weave the phrase “now you’re cooking with gas” into their scripts.
With its “now you’re hip” connotation, it quickly entered the slang lexicon. And in fact, cooking with gas was indeed a technological improvement for the average American home of the time.
Flash forward to 2023, and it’s a different story. We know a lot more now about the emissions associated with fossil fuels and the ways that indoor air quality can affect our health, especially the health of growing children.
The combustion of natural gas in cooking stoves produces a number of indoor pollutants, including benzene, formaldehyde, carbon monoxide (CO), fine particulate matter (PM2.5) and methane.
One of the most concerning is nitrogen dioxide (NO2), which is produced by both natural gas and propane. A known contributor to asthma, it is also thought to be linked to impaired cognition, behavioral issues and a greater risk of ADHD for children, and to increased cardiovascular disease in adults. New York State estimates that homes with gas stoves have anywhere from 50 percent to as much as 400 percent higher concentrations of NO2 indoors than those without.
Benzene and formaldehyde are also of particular concern. Members of a category of chemicals known as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), these substances can cause or aggravate allergies and asthma, and cause irritation of the eyes, nose and airways.
Because they are found in many interior building materials, paints and coatings, as well as in emissions from fossil-fuel appliances, VOCs from multiple sources can accumulate indoors and, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), elevated concentrations can persist for a long time.
Benzene is classified as a known carcinogen by the EPA, the U.S. National Toxicology Program and the International Agency for Research on Cancer, based on sufficient evidence that it causes acute myeloid leukemia (AML). According to the American Cancer Society, studies also suggest a link between benzene and childhood leukemia.
Numerous studies have linked these hazardous substances with natural gas in household appliances. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Energy published a survey of research showing extensive health benefits associated with the elimination of combustion furnaces, boilers, cooking stoves and hot water heaters. Those benefits included improved blood pressure, reduced hypertension and reduced hospitalizations and emergency room visits related to respiratory illnesses, including asthma and COPD.
Removing those sources also resulted in the elimination of the dangers of home fires and carbon monoxide poisoning from malfunctioning combustion appliances.
With gas cooking stoves in about 35 percent of American homes, a 2022 peer-reviewed study by the Rocky Mountain Institute concluded that 12.7 percent of current childhood asthma nationwide can be attributed to their emissions, a finding the study’s authors deemed comparable to the childhood asthma burden attributed to secondhand cigarette smoke.
A 2019-2021 study led by the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health found that natural gas supplied to homes in Massachusetts contained varying levels of at least 21 different hazardous air pollutants, and that gas appliances can be a source of hazardous chemicals even when they are not in use, due to undetectably small but continuous leaks.
A major focus has been public housing. Citing more than 10 years of research, the American Public Health Association issued a formal statement in January 2023 calling on federal agencies, including the EPA, HUD and the CDC, to recognize that emissions from gas stoves—especially nitrogen dioxide pollution—pose a health risk for children, older adults and people with underlying conditions.
It called routine exposure from gas stoves “an under-recognized health threat to residents.”
Enterprise Green, a certification program that advocates for healthy housing and neighborhoods, has been calling for the elimination of gas appliances from new affordable housing construction and major renovation projects for years. The company has demonstrated that all-electric housing built to its standards with no combustion heating, cooking and domestic hot water is only marginally more expensive to construct and significantly cheaper to operate, saving homeowners significant money while reducing health and safety hazards.
Regardless of the evidence, recent proposals to phase out gas-burning domestic equipment in New York State have been met with a predictable wave of fury and misinformation. Despite the headlines, the actual policy statements are considerably more nuanced. In her recent State of the State address, Gov. Hochul supported a phase-out of new fossil fuel-burning heating equipment, starting in 2030, for single-family homes and smaller residential buildings, and in 2035 for larger and commercial buildings.
As systems in existing buildings fail or approach their end of life, they will be replaced by electrified systems. There are already substantial financial incentives in place to support the switch.
Regarding gas cooking stoves, a separate policy under consideration would prohibit gas stoves in new construction, again phased in starting in 2026. No one is coming to remove gas stoves from existing homes, and exceptions for restaurants and other industries are being considered.
Legitimate concerns about the ability of our electric grid to handle the demands of electrification, and the lack of adequate electrical service to our aging and often substandard rural housing, are being addressed by the New York State Public Service Commission.
Experts say householders who cook with gas should use range hoods that vent to the outdoors; if that’s not available, open a kitchen window for ventilation. For the long term, the furor about bans and mandates only serves to distract from the obvious: given all of the compelling research about the health hazards of indoor combustion of fossil fuels, we really have no choice but to move diligently towards the safer, healthier options available to us.
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