Knowledge is power— electromagnetic power, to be exact.

Cooking with gas relies on combusting methane, which releases health-harming pollutants into the surrounding air. But there are better options.

Green living

Erin Skibbens

This summer, I made my first big move from my hometown in Pennsylvania all the way to Boston to start as a campaign associate with the Public Interest Research Group (PIRG). After weeks of scouring through online listings, my roommates and I found an apartment under budget in a great location: we jumped to sign the lease. 

On move-in day, I found that our kitchen came with a gas range. My parents’ home had an induction stove that I loved to use and the college apartment that I lived in for two years since then had a sleek electric cooktop, so I’d never used a gas stove before. At first, I was a little excited to try it out because I’d heard so many great things about cooking with gas. But that was before I began to learn about the health risks associated with using a gas stove.

Cooking food over blue flames relies on combusting methane gas, which releases pollutants into the surrounding air. Exposure to these byproduct pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide and formaldehyde, can impact your health if they are not properly ventilated out of your home. Studies show that nitrogen dioxide in particular can worsen symptoms of pre-existing respiratory illnesses, and even cause asthma to develop in children. 

Overhead ventilation, which takes air from your kitchen and moves it outside, is crucial to ensure you aren’t exposed to unhealthy pollutants every time you make a meal using your gas stove. But a lot of people don’t have the right kind of ventilation, or don’t use it, largely because they don’t know how important it is. Studies have found a concerning amount of variation in the performance of ventilation hoods, with some only capturing as little as 15% of emissions. Many homes and apartments have hoods that only recirculate polluted air within the home instead of removing it. There are also no federal regulations for ventilation, which means that for people who move into an apartment with a gas stove and no overhead vent, your level of exposure to bad pollutants may be largely out of your control. This happened to be the case for me. Our gas stove was entirely unvented.

At PIRG, I started my work as an associate on the Safer Stoves, Healthier Homes campaign. Our goal primarily aims to increase public education surrounding gas stoves, so it became my job to learn about the health impacts associated with using this common home appliance. Once I began digging into the research that’s been done on the issue, I realized the severity of the problem. Suddenly, the initial excitement of trying out gas in my apartment had completely disappeared, and instead I was worried about opening a window every time I started to make a meal. I began to see the blue flames from my own stove as slightly menacing and I missed my parents’ induction range. To add insult to injury, my gas oven was decades-old and the temperature dial doesn’t even have numbers, so baking anything became a total guessing game.

Then, for Christmas, I was given the perfect gift: a portable induction single burner. Induction relies on electromagnetic heating, and conducts energy directly to the pan, making it much more efficient. It’s a great option for a renter in a small space. All you have to do is plug it in, and get cooking with an induction-compatible pan, which you already own if you have stainless steel or cast iron pans in your collection. 

There’s so many pros to induction cooktops. They’re safe, since there’s no flame and the actual surface doesn’t get too hot because all the energy goes directly to the pan. Moreover, they’re efficient, heat up super fast and allow for precise temperature control because of how responsive the technology is. And the best part is that they do it all without emitting unhealthy pollutants into your kitchen. 

Depending on what I’m making, I still use my gas stove if I need more than one burner. But it’s so comforting to know that for a quick, simple meal, I don’t need to worry about inhaling nitrogen dioxide when using my induction plug-in. Moreover, when I do use my stove I can lessen my exposure by reducing how many burners I need on at the same time. In a smaller apartment like mine, with no ventilation other than an open window, it makes all the difference.

While I was able to find a solution for my apartment, the lack of public knowledge on the dangers of unventilated gas stoves means that most people probably don’t know they should look for one. And this is an issue that affects a lot of people; millions of households across the country rely on gas stoves. To protect public health, people need to be aware of the risks associated with cooking with gas, so that they can make sure to use proper ventilation or actually switch to an induction or electric stove and eliminate the problem completely. 

Retailers should inform consumers about the risks associated with products in their stores. This is even more important when that product is central to peoples’ daily lives, and stays in their homes for decades. Putting warning labels on gas stoves is one solution that could quickly inform consumers about the dangers and need for ventilation.

While all retailers should make this change, we’ve started a campaign calling on Best Buy in particular to take on the initiative to educate their customers. We chose this leading retailer of home appliances because it’s really what their brand is all about. Best Buy’s stated purpose is to enrich lives through technology. What better way to enrich lives than to reduce exposure to health-harming pollutants, and uplift induction, the latest and greatest in cooking technology. As the third-largest appliance retailer in the United States, Best Buy could set an example for the rest of the industry to follow by putting warning labels on gas stoves, so that consumers can make informed decisions regarding their homes and their health.

For this campaign to be successful, there’s a lot of work to be done on educating the public about the issue. PIRG released a consumer education guide in November, Healthier Holiday, to bring about more awareness on the importance of ventilation during the time of year when people spend the most time in the kitchen. We’ve also worked to get media coverage on the issue, like this Boston 25 News story, featuring PIRG’s own Environment Campaigns Director Matt Casale’s story on switching out gas for an induction stove. Eventually, we hope to completely phase out the use of gas stoves, both to protect our health and help save our climate. If you’re interested in supporting our effort, you can help by signing our petition today, asking Best Buy to put warning labels on gas stoves sold in their stores.

 

Cover Image: “Burning gas stovetop in darkened room – closeup” by D Coetzee via Flickr.com (CC0 1.0)

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Erin Skibbens

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