Food for Thought: Surprise! Switching from gas stoves to electric can protect your health and the planet

It’s a gas burner with the Earth behind it. Get it? Credit: Getty

By Isabella Deza, Alliance Intern from George Mason University

Do you like cooking with gas? Most of us do, but few of us realize the health and climate impacts from gas stoves. Studies find that unburned natural gas leaks from stoves contain benzene, a known carcinogen. Gas cooking creates fine particulates that can cause or exacerbate respiratory problems. Studies found that nitrogen dioxide exposure comparable to that from a gas stove increases the odds of children developing a respiratory illness by about 20%. And methane leaking from stoves inside US homes has the same climate impact as about 500,000 cars.

While these and other facts we’ll share are persuasive, how important is it to purchase a new electric or induction stove and what can we do in the meantime? The NYT Wirecutter estimates that gas stoves only account for 3% of household gas emissions. One might see this as relatively insignificant, but it may have a larger impact than we would think. HEATED author Emily Atkin compares gas stoves to the plastic straws of building emissions. 

From Straws to Stoves — A Far Greater Impact than Expected

The possible fundamental shift from gas stoves may be seen as somewhat akin to the anti-plastic straw movement, which served as the gateway to raising awareness of single-use plastics in our lives and the harms of plastics to people and the planet. The founder of the nonprofit The Last Plastic Straw, Jackie Nunez stated, “even though [straws are] a small percentage of what’s in the ocean, they’re still in the ocean doing harm.”

Nunez picked straws to be her focus “because it’s really a simple, tangible thing—but also the symbol of our bigger problem, this disposable culture. What’s most important is that now, everyone is talking about plastic. And the straw is the key that opens the room.”

Like Straws, Stoves Can Change the World 

In the case of gas stoves, what may also be seen as a relatively small impact can significantly affect individuals’ health, while possibly leading to an even greater planetary impact from burning fossil fuels which are causing health issues and climate catastrophe.

Surprising Health Effects from Gas Stoves

“Gas stoves emit dangerous indoor air pollution, including carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and particulate matter, which can increase the risk of asthma and heart disease,” as Fast Company points out. Furthermore, “A simulation at the Lawrence Berkeley National Lab found that an hour of cooking with gas can add up to 3,000 parts per billion of carbon monoxide emitted into the air, more than 100 times the recommended limit from the World Health Organization.”

But the biggest concern for human health according to Scientific American is “NO2, which is produced when natural gas is burned at high temperatures in the presence of nitrogen in the atmosphere.” While the EPA regulates outdoor NO2 emissions with standards for their safe exposure limit, but there are no similar standards for indoor exposure. Sadly, Scientific American points to “studies dating back decades have shown harmful effects from the NO2 in gas cooking stoves.”

As Josiah Kephart at Drexel University says, “Our knowledge of the health impacts of outdoor NO2 has grown dramatically in the last 10 years, and we have found that it is much more of a health risk than perhaps we previously thought.” According to Scientific American, “Since then, numerous other studies have documented the effects of gas stove exposure on respiratory health. A 2013 meta-analysis of 41 studies found that gas cooking increases the risk of asthma in children and that NO2 exposure is linked with currently having a wheeze.”

Shockingly, a recent study found that 12.7 percent of childhood asthma cases in the US can be attributed to gas stove use. Furthermore, long-term NO2 exposure has been linked to chronic lung disease and increased mortality in general, according to Scientific American

Why Switching from Gas Can Help Save the Planet

There are several surprising ways in which gas stoves are contributing to climate disaster. Burning natural gas produces carbon dioxide, the most prevalent greenhouse gas. And unburned natural gas contains another potent culprit: methane. As the excellent HEATED article shares, we need to be aware of the “quiet prevalence of methane leaks in our lives and the harm those leaks cause people and the planet.” Methane is playing a much greater role in worsening climate change, as it has more than 80 times the warming power of carbon dioxide over a 20-year period.

Researchers at Stanford estimate that over one-third of US households (40 million homes) have gas-burning stoves. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas that makes up 95% of consumer-grade natural gas. Methane is leaking from your stove every time you turn on the burner before it ignites. Even when it’s off, gas stoves are constantly leaking significant amounts of methane from fittings and connections. 

And the problem isn’t just our stoves themselves, according to Scientific American. “We’ve known for years that there’s methane leaks in the [natural gas] distribution system, especially in cities on the East Coast, where the infrastructure is a lot older,” Eric Lebel, a senior scientist PSE Healthy Energy, a nonprofit research and policy institute in Oakland, CA, says. “And then, even further upstream than that, there are leaks from transmission and from production.” All of those leaks add up and contribute to the climate impact of the natural gas supply chain, he adds.

So What Can You Do Now?

Scientific American points out two steps that you can take to address the challenges:

First, “if you have the means, you can replace your gas stove with an electric one [which would preferably be induction]. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act provides rebates of up to $840 for purchasing new electric appliances, including stoves and cooktops.” See this Fast Company article about why “Induction stoves are far better than traditional electric ranges—and can even outperform gas.” 

Second, “if you can’t afford to buy a new stove or if you rent an apartment and can’t change the appliances, experts note that there are still things you can do to reduce your exposure risk.
If your stove has an overhead vent, you should use it every time you cook—and ideally it should vent to the outside.”

You should always turn that exhaust fan on anytime that you’re using your stove, no matter if you’re just boiling water,” says PSE Healthy Energy’s Eric Lebel. “Even if what you’re cooking doesn’t smell, if that flame is on, you should have the exhaust on to help reduce the concentrations of the off-gassing, or those [nitrogen oxide] by-products, in the kitchen.”

Additionally, University of Colorado, Boulder, Medical Engineering Professor Shelly Miller shared with the Huffington Post, if you have a HEPA air filter, you should turn that on when you cook. “The air cleaner will remove all the particulate matter [but] you have to have a filter with activated carbon to remove the nitrogen dioxide,” she said.

Concluding Thoughts

While getting a new stove is costly for those who own homes and largely impossible for those who rent, if you are in a position now or in a few years to get a new stove, consider an electric or induction stove instead of a gas stove. You can make a difference for your health and those you love, while being part of a growing movement for sustainability, health, equity and kindness.

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