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Earlier this month, a commissioner of the United States Consumer Product Safety Commission, the nation’s top consumer watchdog, said that the agency was considering new regulations on gas stoves, including a ban, because of a growing body of research linking them to hazardous levels of indoor air pollution.
The suggestion ignited a furor, particularly on the right. “If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove,” Ronny Jackson, a Republican congressman from Texas, tweeted, “they can pry it from my cold dead hands.”
Why have gas stoves become such a cultural flash point, and what are the debate’s health, climate and culinary stakes? Here’s an overview.
The case against gas stoves
The main component of natural gas is methane, which many readers may know primarily as a potent greenhouse gas, responsible for about 30 percent of global warming since the Industrial Revolution. Methane leakage from gas stoves in American homes — more than 75 percent of which occurs when the stoves are off — has the same warming effect as the annual carbon dioxide emissions from 500,000 cars, a Stanford study found last year.
The combustion of methane also produces toxic nitrogen oxides, including nitrogen dioxide, a respiratory irritant that can cause breathing problems and that is subject to stringent outdoor air pollution controls under the Clean Air Act.
It’s another story for indoor air pollution, which is largely unregulated. Since at least the 1970s, researchers have been studying the negative health effects of gas stoves, which are the only major indoor gas appliance that isn’t required to be vented outside. Most recently, a December meta-analysis estimated that 12.7 percent of childhood asthma cases in the United States are attributable to gas stove use, comparable to the share of cases attributable to secondhand smoke exposure.
A changing climate, a changing world
Climate change around the world: In “Postcards From a World on Fire,” 193 stories from individual countries show how climate change is reshaping reality everywhere, from dying coral reefs in Fiji to disappearing oases in Morocco and far, far beyond.
The validity of that particular finding has been questioned by the economist Emily Oster, among others, who believes the health risks of gas stoves are being overstated. Oster pointed out in her newsletter that some U.S. states with low gas stove ownership have higher childhood asthma rates than those with high gas stove ownership.
But what’s clear from multiple tests and studies is that gas stoves can easily raise the amount of nitrogen dioxide inside the home to levels that would be illegal outdoors. They can also release other air pollutants that are known or suspected to cause cancer, even when turned off.
Ventilation provided by a range hood that leads outside can help mitigate the problem, but it doesn’t eliminate it. And many gas stoves (especially in apartments) have only ductless hoods, which are typically less effective.
If you have a large, well-ventilated kitchen and are in good health, “this may not be your biggest concern or the biggest risk to your health,” Josiah Kephart, an environmental epidemiologist at Drexel University, told NPR in 2021. But when it came to his two young children, he said, “it doesn’t make any sense to me to add to the risk of them developing asthma or other respiratory diseases by having this source of pollution right inside our house.”
Many home and restaurant cooks have a difficult time imagining cooking without gas, in part because traditional radiant electric stoves, while more than twice as energy efficient, can be frustratingly unresponsive. But as the Times Food columnist Melissa Clark recently pointed out, gas stove partisanship is also a product of aggressive lobbying and advertising from the natural gas industry to convince Americans of the technology’s superiority despite knowledge of its dangers.
The double bind prompted Clark to test out induction cooktops, which use magnetic fields to heat cookware directly, and so are both more efficient and more responsive than conventional electric stoves. She found that she preferred the technology to gas — as did Eric Ripert, the chef of Le Bernardin, one of the most lauded restaurants in the world, after he replaced the gas stoves in his homes with induction.
“After two days, I was in love,” Ripert said. “It’s so much more precise than watching a flame.”
The case for simmering down
Induction technology has been around for decades, but only 3 percent of American homes have it, according to a 2022 Consumer Reports survey.
Ignorance of its advantages could be one reason for the low uptake, but so could knowledge of its drawbacks. Induction technology works only with cookware whose exterior is made of magnetic metal, excluding bare or anodized aluminum, copper and some stainless steels. While their prices continue to drop, induction ranges also cost more on average than gas ones, and that’s without accounting for any electrical work that might be needed for a conversion.
The expense can pose a problem for home cooks and restaurants alike. The stoves at Le Bernardin, for example, are still running on gas. “It would be a big expense to replace stoves that still work well, but, if the gas stove broke, I’d consider it,” Ripert said, adding that he thought his cooks would adapt quickly. “After a few days, they’d all love it.”
Many chefs disagree. In 2019, the California Restaurant Association sued Berkeley after it became the first U.S. city to ban gas hookups in new buildings, arguing that it would increase costs and prevent restaurants from preparing many Asian cuisines.
“Many of these restaurants rely on gas for cooking particular types of food, whether it be flame-seared meats, charred vegetables or the use of intense heat from a flame under a wok,” the trade group said in court filings. Commercial (and noncommercial) induction stoves compatible with woks have been developed, but they are still more expensive than gas rigs.
There are much cheaper ways to reduce both your health risks and your carbon footprint than electrifying your stove. Dani Blum, a reporter for Well at The Times, suggested trying to use the stove less often and instead opting for a toaster oven, microwave, electric kettle or portable induction burner when possible. She also suggested installing an air purifier in the kitchen, which one 2014 study found lowered nitrogen dioxide levels by about half as much as replacing the stove.
As far as the climate is concerned, an electric stove is only as clean as the source of its electricity. And while buildings account for around 13 percent of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions, gas stoves accounted for just about 3 percent of household natural gas use in 2015. Most emissions come from the gas boilers used for heating and hot water, as the Times columnist Farhad Manjoo wrote last week.
“Instead of getting an induction stove, then, it might make a lot more sense for you to spend your money on a heat pump, an underappreciated and kind of magical electric device that can replace both a gas-powered furnace and an air-conditioner,” Manjoo argued. “But there may be an even simpler and cheaper thing to do first: Weather seal your house.”
What’s next for America’s stoves?
That may do little to quell efforts by Republican-led state legislatures to adopt pre-emptive prohibitions on local gas bans. But by and large, Republican-led states aren’t the ones most likely to be affected by such restrictions. Gas stoves are used in only 35 percent of U.S. homes, and as Somini Sengupta of The Times pointed out in the Climate Forward newsletter, the states with the highest use are California, Nevada and those in the Northeast and around the Great Lakes. “It’s not a red-blue state divide,” she wrote, even if “it’s weirdly become part of the U.S. culture wars.”
Whatever the federal government does, many cities, including Los Angeles and New York, have followed Berkeley in requiring new buildings to go gas free. Conversions may also pick up because of the Inflation Reduction Act, which created rebates and tax credits to defray the cost of going electric. (Those eligible can receive up to $840 for a new stove and up to $500 for the switch.) “In the end, culture-war considerations will lose out to questions of cost and quality,” Jacob Stern writes in The Atlantic. “The better product will win the day, plain and simple.”
But the mass electrification of stoves and other household appliances may take a while, not least because the nation’s power grid is not yet ready for it. “Eventually, the gas stove, like the gas lamp or a pack of Virginia Slims, will exist as a relic of another era,” Ginia Bellafante of The Times writes. “But we are a long way from a time in which our relationship to gas cooking will be merely nostalgic.”
Do you have a point of view we missed? Email us at email@example.com. Please note your name, age and location in your response, which may be included in the next newsletter.
“Environmentalists have a blind spot in the debate over gas stoves” [The Washington Post]
“Your Induction Stove Is the First Step Toward Plugging In the Whole House” [The New York Times]
“What we’re really fighting about when we fight about gas stoves” [The Washington Post]
“Learning to Love an Induction Stove” [The New Yorker]