The forgotten gas stove wars

Black-and-white photo of two women in a 1950s kitchen with a gas stove.
Concerns about whether stoves are safe are nearly as old as gas stoves themselves. | Chaloner Woods/Getty Images

We’ve been fighting over gas stoves for decades.

Forty years ago, the federal government seemed to be on the brink of regulating the gas stove. Everything was on the table, from an outright ban to a modification of the Clean Air Act to address indoor air pollution. Congress held indoor air quality hearings in 1983, and the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) were both investigating the effects of gas appliances.

Backed into a corner, the industry that profits from selling consumers natural gas for their heating and cooking sprang into action. It filed comments to agencies disputing the science. It funded its own studies and hired consultants to assess the threats it would face from further regulation.

To prove that voluntary action was effective and regulation unnecessary, utilities produced their own literature for consumers, like Northern States Power Company’s warning that “Homes Need Fresh Air During the Heating Season.” And it nervously eyed media reports, like Consumer Reports’ conclusion in 1984 that “the evidence so far suggests that emissions from a gas range do pose a risk” and “may make you choose an electric one.”

The research on gas stoves’ health effects was “provocative, not conclusive,” concluded a 1984 Energy Bar Association report drawn up by gas industry consultants.

Ultimately, the US did not pass new regulations. Instead, natural gas became even more embedded in American homes and lives, in 2020 supplying fuel to 70 million homes. All the while, scientists continued to warn that gas can produce a range of emissions and pollutants: nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, formaldehyde, hydrogen cyanide, and particulate matter, among others. The methane from gas is a growing contributor to climate change.

Now, the US runs the risk of repeating history, and natural gas utilities find themselves in a similar position to the one they were in four decades ago. We have dozens of studies and better quantification of exposures and risks than ever, but the industry, dependent on selling fuel to tens of millions of homes, is reprising an age-old playbook used by any industry that finds itself on the defense over public health.

The gas industry takes a page from tobacco to dispute gas stove science

Even in the early 1900s, the natural gas industry knew it had a problem with the gas stove. At the time, people who didn’t have gas stoves largely used coal or wood, but new competition was on the horizon from electric stoves. Both coal and wood were known to cause health issues, but while gas companies would later position themselves as a clean alternative to these fuels, the industry was already aware it was far from clean.

At the second annual meeting of the Natural Gas Association of America in 1907, gas representatives debated how to approach the issue of ventilation around the stove. “I believe the association will go on record on that point: no gas of any kind should go into a heating stove without a flue connection,” which vents into the air outdoors, according to published minutes from the meeting.

One attendee noted, “This method of burning gas should be condemned merely from the fact that we get the gas direct and there is danger to life in getting any gas direct in your room, to say nothing of all of the by-products.” The most obvious danger of the time was carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide poisoning.

Gas grew regardless of these problems. Over the next few decades, electric and gas stoves went to war with marketing campaigns — a pre-presidential Ronald Reagan appeared in a marketing campaign for General Electric’s all-electric household in 1958, while in 1964 the Pennsylvania People’s Natural Gas Company recruited film star Marlene Dietrich. She professed in her ad, “Every recipe I give is closely related to cooking with gas. If forced, I can cook on an electric stove but it is not a happy union.”

By the 1970s and ’80s, the science had become far more nuanced. One of the seminal reports from the EPA’s appointed Committee on Indoor Pollutants published in 1981 showed, “an association between gas cooking and the impairment of lung function in children.” While many questions were unanswered, the NAS was convinced by the evidence it did have that gas appliances posed a “sufficient threat to the general public health to justify remedial action.”

The gas industry has latched onto these small uncertainties to undermine the larger body of research. The American Gas Association still heralds the federal agencies’ lack of action since the 1980s and 1990s as an argument in the stoves’ favor.

In 1986, though, the EPA sent a report back to the CPSC. The executive summary said gas from cooking or heating “is not a risk factor of great magnitude in comparison with a factor such as cigarette smoke,” but still noted the amount of research needed to understand more: “Unfortunately the majority of epidemiological studies include no information on N02, and among those that do have actual measurements, the number of homes and characterization of concentrations are very limited,” the report continued. “This suggests that better quantification of exposure is a major need in future studies.”

The EPA also kicked the issue of nitrogen dioxides to the CPSC to determine the level of emissions coming from these appliances, asking for “further efforts … to assess the health risks associated with indoor use of kerosene space heaters and other sources of nitrogen dioxide emissions.”

None of this appeared to happen.

The EPA did issue emissions standards for wood stoves and fireplaces in 1985, but never took up gas. The prospect of any more EPA action faded from the public debate. Agencies apparently backed away from the issue. Tobacco was becoming a bigger priority, and the EPA and Housing and Urban Development started voluntary initiatives for healthier homes.

There were marginal improvements in stove and oven technology in the intervening years. The biggest change was phasing out pilot lights, a flame that would always burn gas but also is dangerous when it goes out. These helped some severe safety issues with gas appliances, like lowering the chance of an explosion, but didn’t address air quality issues when the stove was on or off. Building codes throughout the country also began to mandate lifesaving carbon monoxide detectors.

One key gas industry technology that could have improved the safety of the stove was developed around the same period, in the 1980s. It was an infrared burner device that uses less gas and lowers nitrogen dioxide emissions, one of the most concerning pollutants that comes from gas and causes asthma. According to NPR’s reporting, the idea was shelved in part because there was no demand for it; it would even do away with the iconic blue flame that made the stove so popular.

The déjà vu of the gas stove debate

As these debates have resurfaced, the gas trade groups have echoed similar lines to the ones they used in the 1980s. This time, in addition to drawing attention to the uncertainties that remain, the industry has directly disputed the scientific consensus.

Some of the defenders of the gas stove are the same consultants who have defended tobacco and chemicals industries in litigation over health problems.

A hearing in November in the Portland-area Multnomah County in Oregon on gas stoves as pollution hazards offered a glimpse of that strategy. Doctors and public advocates testified against gas appliances because of the NO2 they emit. The gas appliance had its defenders as well, including Julie Goodman, an epidemiologist employed by the consulting firm Gradient who argued that “longer-term average NO2 concentrations in homes with gas cooking are not of a potential health concern. Importantly, it is well-established that ventilation mitigates cooking emissions, regardless of the source of the energy used.”

Goodman’s firm had been hired by the American Gas Association to dispute the research on gas stoves, according to a letter to the American Medical Association temporarily published on the association’s website. The letter noted, as of September, that AGA had hired Gradient for consulting. In a recent interview in the New York Times, Goodman added, “when considering the entire body of literature, the available epidemiology evidence is not adequate to support causation with respect to gas stoves and adverse health effects.”

A similar pattern has emerged in the gas industry’s pushback on gas stoves. AGA’s replies have emphasized that there is no conclusive evidence that gas cooking poses harm, and no clear causation between asthma and pollution from the stove. After all, it’s not the only source of nitrogen dioxide or other pollutants that we’re exposed to.

But for all the talk about uncertainty around risks from gas appliances and the gas stoves in 70 million American homes, there are plenty epidemiologists, pediatricians, and other scientists feel confident about. Gas produces pollutants, and without any ventilation it can be dangerous to one’s health. Even when gas is ventilated, the emissions don’t go away; it just contributes to outdoor smog instead of poor indoor air quality.

Republicans have claimed the recent gas stove news is a front or a distraction spun by a Biden administration intent on taking people’s freedoms away (to repeat, neither Biden nor the CPSC is banning the stove). Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) tweeted on Friday, “Maybe if the Biden Administration wasn’t so worried about banning your gas stoves, they would have seen this Chinese spy balloon coming.” In a recent letter to the CPSC, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) called the gas stove a “newfound ‘hidden hazard’ that rests on limited research.” And right-wing forums are full of conspiracies, including the theory, “The Gas Stove Ban was to keep Biden’s Mishandling Classified Docs out of the news.”

None of it is true. The pollution concerns are practically as old as the gas stoves themselves. There’s less debate over the gas stove than the natural gas industry and its allies have implied.

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