Why Natural Gas Stoves Are Harmful to Our Health and Climate

GStoves have a special appeal. They are often associated with high-profile chefs who cook in elegant, well-equipped kitchens that feature an open fire. Many at-home chefs have opted to forgo electric stoves with their outdated coils. Recent research has shown that this wisdom is changing as people learn more about the adverse climate effects and the health risks associated with gas stoves.

A startling study published in January by Stanford University found that natural gas stoves—which more than a third of American homes use—may emit concerning levels of indoor air pollution, and could play a larger role in driving climate change than previously believed. Even when they weren’t being used, natural gas stoves were shown to release methane, a potent greenhouse gas, and other harmful pollutants—including formaldehyde, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide—through leaks and in the service line.

This raises the larger question: Should households worldwide switch to electric induction stoves?

American Kitchens Have Methane Leakage

In terms of methane emission, buildings and residential properties have always been in the dark. Few studies have attempted to quantify the amount of methane released from living in homes or working in buildings. One study suggested that we might be overcounting city-level emissions. On top of this, the fossil fuel industry has worked hard to turn gas stoves into one of America’s most loved appliances.

Stanford earth system sciences professor Rob Jackson and his team at the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment are helping change this understanding with their January gas stove study—the first to analyze this issue. The peer-reviewed journal will publish their findings. Environmental Science & TechnologyThe team measured the methane, nitrogen oxides and other pollutants released by 53 California households during different phases of the cooking process. Total, 18 different brands of stoves and gas cooktops were tested.

The methane that is emitted by natural gas stoves across the United States equals the emission from half-a-million cars powered by gasoline every year, according to experts. Just using one gas stove for a year emits on average 649 grams of methane—equivalent to the number of emissions released from driving 40 miles. This can cause climate change and other health issues, such as respiratory disease, asthma, or reduced cognitive performance. These are all problems that children are most vulnerable to. Even tiny particulate matter particles can get into the lungs. They can cause irritation to the eyes, throat, nose and lungs.

The stovetop emits methane when it is on, as well as when it is off. In fact, more than three-quarters of all the methane emissions released by the stoves happened when they were off, the study found—a phenomenon that is likely explained by leaky pipes, and ill-fitted connections between natural gas hookups and the appliances they power. “Merely having the stove in your house creates a potential exposure pathway to air pollutants,” says Seth Sockoloff, executive director of PSE Healthy Energy, a research institute that collaborated with Stanford University on the study.

Eric Lebel (Stanford study co-author) says the kitchen’s size and ventilation options can have an impact on the potential for gas stoves. One example is the room where the oven was used without ventilation. This resulted to levels of nitrogen dioxides exceeding safety standards as set out by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

A report by National Center for Healthy Housing and Enterprise Community Partners found that nitrogen dioxide levels in cakes baked in gas ovens was 230 parts to billion. According to the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, this is comparable to the NO2 levels found in smog (around 200ppb).

The Stanford study looked only at small numbers of homes. However, they believe their state-level findings are applicable to all of America. With little regional variation, this suggests that natural gas appliances can have an underestimated impact. RMI, a climate charity, analyzed two decades’ worth of residential methane emissions data to support the research. “Shockingly in the United States, gas stoves are not universally required to be vented outdoors,” RMI renewable energy expert Brady Seals told TIME. “So, much of the pollution that is emitted into the kitchen stays there.”

Based on all this, Jackson “absolutely” believes gas stoves are more harmful to the environment and human health than their electric counterparts. “Stoves are the only appliance where we are allowed to emit pollution directly into our homes,” he says. “Every furnace or water heater is required to vent to the outdoors—we would never stand over the tailpipe of a car breathing, yet we are perfectly happy to stand over our stoves and breathe their pollution.”

Is induction cooking better for the environment and your health?

Induction stoves were used for decades in Europe. This market currently accounts for over 35%. Although induction stoves were first introduced to the U.S. by energy professionals and appliance manufacturers, they are still a relatively new trend.

Induction stoves can be plugged into an electric source, but unlike other stoves they use induction technology to create heat. Induction stoves are based on induction technology, as the name indicates. To produce heat, an electric current passes through the copper coil underneath the cooktop. It creates magnetic induction that flows directly to the pan. Magnetic induction transfers heat from the stovetop to cookware with a magnetic base. It’s likely that a number of pots and pans in your kitchen right now would be suitable for an induction stove, including those made of stainless steel, cast iron, and porcelain enamel on metal. (To find out if yours are compatible, appliance manufacturer Frigidaire recommends a simple “magnet test.”)

Stove tops stay cool because heat is directly transferred to a pan or pot. Frigidaire notes that induction stoves are more efficient at heating water. They can heat water up to 50% faster than their electric and gas counterparts, while still maintaining precise and consistent temperatures.

Additionally, induction stoves perform better than traditional gas or electric stoves. Energy Star, a government-backed monitoring system for energy efficiency and efficiency reports that induction stoves transfer heat at 85%. This is far higher than the 32 percent efficiency of gas (32%), or 75-80% efficiency of most electric stoves (75-78%). “The per-unit efficiency of induction cooking tops is about 5 to 10% more efficient than conventional electric resistance units and about three times more efficient than gas,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency told TIME. If all U.S. cooking tops sold in 2021 used induction technology that met government-recommended usage guidelines, Energy Star estimates that cost savings would have been over $125 million.

However, this higher efficiency does come at a greater price. An induction stove costs around $1,000, while a gas or conventional stove can cost you a couple hundred dollars. This stove is more efficient and expensive but also safer for your health.

Induction stoves, like other appliances in the home, emit electromagnetic waves. However, the levels are not sufficient to make them safe according to the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers. Although some studies in the early stages raised concerns about electromagnetic fields being harmful to children or fetuses due to their frequency, the World Health Organization found no evidence that medium-frequency magnetic field effects have long-term consequences for human health. Gas stoves are linked to 42% greater rates of children’s asthma.

Kenneth McCloud is a Binghamton University professor who studies electromagnetic fields and the effects on people. He says it’s difficult to find enough evidence to prove that induction stoves cause harm. “Are any of those effects hazardous?” he says. “In terms of what you can be exposed to in the home, I am unaware of any detrimental effects.”

Like any appliance, induction stoves should be read carefully. Use appropriately sized cookware, and keep your distance with the use of rear cooking fields.

Future energy transition

The long-term effects of continuing to burn fossil fuels and the associated climate implications further compound health issues—from worse air quality to exacerbating heat stress and worsening natural disasters. “While we may feel the health impacts from our gas stove sooner than the climate impacts,” says Seals at RMI, “on the macro level, burning gas in our homes makes us reliant on these climate-disrupting fuels and the leaky infrastructure that supports them.”

Scientists agree that fossil fuels must be eliminated in order to reduce climate change and the impacts it has. Massachusetts, California and other states are considering legislation that would ban the use of natural gas in new buildings. They also want to encourage all-electric construction with rebates and incentives. New York City was the first to adopt such regulations in December 2021.

“The idea is that we don’t want to lock in these gas appliances as infrastructure for the next 20 or 30 years—that’s how long a gas stove will last,” says Lebel. “If someone buys a gas stove today, that appliance is going to be in a person’s kitchen for the next several decades.”

In the meantime, not everyone can afford to upgrade immediately, and the environmental impacts of producing new stoves and discarding old ones before the end of their life shouldn’t be ignored either, the Stanford researchers note. As with electric vehicles, we need to understand how more resources are sourced for the stoves. So, until the right moment comes to choose induction—maybe that’s when searching for a new apartment or taking advantage of rebates to make the switch—the researchers suggest taking small initial steps to move toward electrifying residential kitchens.

You can also invest in induction cookware that is compatible with all types of stoves. To operate a natural gas stove, you should always open windows and turn on the fan or hood vent.

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