Gas stoves are polluting American homes and putting our health at risk.
A study from Boston, Massachusetts, recently found 21 hazardous air pollutants – including benzene – leaking into homes from unburned gas. A similar study conducted in California kitchens found hazardous air pollutants accumulating in homes through leaking gas, including benzene – a known carcinogen linked to blood disorders and leukemia. Researchers measured concentrations above California’s recommended exposure limit – levels comparable to living with a smoker. It is likely this situation is occurring in kitchens across the country.
More pollutants are released during the cooking process due to gas combustion. Simply using a gas stove releases significant nitrogen dioxide (NO2) pollution at concentrations that can exceed outdoor air quality standards. The health impacts of this NO2 exposure are numerous. Children living in homes with gas stoves have a 42% increased risk of experiencing asthma symptoms, and a 24% increased risk of ever being diagnosed with asthma by a doctor over their lifetime.
Proper overhead ventilation that exhausts outdoors can help reduce exposure to pollutants from gas stoves and cooking activities. However, not all kinds of ventilation significantly reduces risk. In fact, one study found even whole home mechanical ventilation is not adequate to reduce NO2 pollution indoors. Worse yet, while national data for how many homes have proper stove ventilation is lacking, researchers have found gas stoves without properly vented exhaust hoods are common, as most ventilation for gas ranges merely recirculates air and does not vent outdoors. Ventilation can also often be used improperly and does not always eliminate indoor air pollutants, nor does it address toxins released when the stoves are off. That said – it is an important tool to reduce risks in lieu of replacing the stove.
This recent surge of evidence about the risks of gas stove use has sparked mainstream public discussion about gas stoves, but knowledge that gas stove pollution can harm human health and outdoor ventilation is needed is not actually new.
Consumer Reports stated in 1982 that studies indicate, “Children from gas-stove homes have a greater incidence of respiratory illness and impaired lung function than those from homes with electric stoves.” In a 1984 article, Consumer Reports further stated that, “the evidence so far suggests that emissions from a gas range do pose a risk — though probably not a major one — of impairing the health of some people in some homes. If you are buying a new range and can choose between electric and gas, that fact, added to other advantages of electric ranges may make you choose an electric one.”
Nearly forty years later, consumers and public health organizations with questions about gas stove pollution and health are met with a lack of meaningful action from federal agencies including the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission and the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. And while concern is growing among the general public about gas stove pollution, the risks are not new to these federal agencies or the gas industry. In fact, the EPA and CPSC were aware of gas stove pollution and its connection to asthma for nearly 40 years, yet each failed to act.
Today, indoor air quality in homes remains unregulated by any federal agency and the CPSC has yet to take meaningful action on gas stove pollution. This information vacuum has left consumers unaware of the health concerns of gas stove pollution for decades, as well as what they might do to mitigate health risks, such as proper outdoor ventilation in homes with gas stoves.
In lieu of action by federal agencies to protect public health from gas stove pollution with consistent, health protective measures, there is a clear opportunity for consumer education at point of sale.
The retailer opportunity
As the source of much of the information consumers consider when purchasing an appliance, retailers have an opportunity to educate Americans on safely using a gas stove, including the need for proper ventilation.
Most people shopping for a new stove, oven or cooking appliance have very little information about the potential health risks of cooking with gas, the need for outdoor ventilation when purchasing a gas range, or alternatives to entirely avoid gas stove pollution with electric or induction cooking. Retailers who are concerned about protecting the health and safety of their customers can do a better job of educating consumers and ensuring that they have all the information necessary to protect themselves and their families.
Surveys of retail locations
To better understand what information consumers are currently getting at point of sale regarding gas stoves, pollution and ways to mitigate risks, volunteers engaged a survey of 39 locations of Lowe’s, Home Depots and Best Buys in 10 states, and found that consumers get little to no information about the potential health harms of gas stove pollution or the need for ventilation at the point of sale.
The Retailer Opportunity: Recommendations
These surveys revealed several opportunities for retailers to do a better job of protecting their customers from gas stove pollution, especially as manufacturers are not currently required by the CPSC to include warning labels. Lowes, Home Depot, Best Buy and other retailers of ranges and cooktops can and should take the following steps to better protect their customers from the health risks associated with cooking with gas:
- Train sales people to answer questions about indoor air pollution and gas stoves. Most of the sales people we talked to as a part of our survey hadn’t heard anything about the health risks of gas stove pollution, and none were able to provide comprehensive information about the topic. Nor were they able to provide advice about the need for proper, ducted ventilation that vents outdoors. All retailers of gas stoves should implement a training program to educate their workforce about how to talk to customers about the issue. Retailers can partner with organizations that have expertise on the subject matter and training experience, such as Physicians for Social Responsibility.
- Package and display vent hoods in a way that makes it clear outdoor ventilation is needed for gas stoves. In stores, retailers should make sure that to the extent possible, gas stoves are displayed with vent hoods above them, or that vent hoods are displayed near the ranges in a way that makes it obvious they are meant to go together. There should also be customer education materials that suggest what type of vent hood is necessary for specific ranges and why. Online, retailers should make it easier for customers to see suggested vent hood options for each specific range, as well as a guide to ensure customers understand how to vent outdoors.
- Design signage, labels and customer education materials that promote the clean air benefits of cooking with electric appliances such as induction ranges or cooktops. Cleaner and healthier indoor air is a benefit of induction and electric ranges and cooktops which retailers should highlight with signs and other materials next to the appliance on the showroom floor and displayed online as well.
- Ensure that brick and mortar stores have inductions ranges or cooktops available for display. Given that it is a new technology for many Americans, people may be more comfortable with considering induction if they can see it in person and get a better feel for how it works. Not all of the stores we surveyed had them available for display. This presents an opportunity for video tutorials on how to use induction cooking technology both online and with an in store video display.
- Make readily available information about local, state and federal rebates and tax credits for electrification both in stores and online. The recently passed Inflation Reduction Act included several incentives, rebates and tax credits that can help Americans go electric – including potential rebates for electric and induction ranges, as well as any electrical upgrades that might be necessary for the installation. States and local governments may also provide additional incentives. Retailers should have information about these rebates and incentives available for customers as they are considering what type of range or cooktop to purchase.
- Retailers should call for federal agencies such as CPSC to take action on gas stove pollution. In addition to retailers taking the above steps to ensure consumers understand gas stove pollution risks and ways to protect their health, retailers can also call for strong, meaningful health protective standards and awareness campaigns from federal agencies such as from the CPSC.
Director, Environment Campaigns, U.S. PIRG Education Fund
Matt oversees PIRG's toxics, transportation and zero waste campaigns and leads PIRG’s climate program to promote a cleaner, healthier future for all Americans. Matt lives in Amherst, Massachusetts, with his wife, two daughters and chihuahua.