Gas stoves are hazardous to your health, Multnomah County report says – OregonLive

November 12, 2022
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A new Multnomah County Health Department report shows gas stoves are health hazards, especially to children. (AP Photo/Thomas Kienzle, File)AP
Your gas stove can make you and your children sick.
That’s the message of a new report released Thursday by Multnomah County, which recommends transitioning away from gas stoves and other gas appliances because they release dangerous air pollutants.
The report says children living in homes with gas stoves are 42% more likely to experience asthma symptoms and 24% more likely to be diagnosed with lifetime asthma. Older adults and those with preexisting conditions are also at increased risk.
“Our review… found conclusively that gas stoves are a health hazard, especially for children with growing lungs,” said Nadège Dubuisson, an environmental toxics program specialist at the county and lead author of the report.
Gas has been promoted for decades as more affordable, safe, and climate friendly. Gas stoves are also favored by restaurants and cooking aficionados for their ability to more precisely control temperatures.
But studies show the stoves release several pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, volatile organic chemicals, and particulate matter — even when the appliance is off.
“We’ve all been sold a bill of goods,” said Melanie Plaut, a retired doctor now volunteering with Oregon Physicians for Social Responsibility. “We spend 90% of our time indoors and a lot of that is in our kitchens, yet we haven’t really understood what’s coming out of our gas stoves.”
Many U.S. cities are now actively trying to phase out natural gas and transition to electricity as part of their strategy to reduce reliance on fossil fuels. More than 70 cities and towns nationwide – including about 50 in California – have already adopted regulations that restrict natural gas hookups, including gas stoves, in new commercial and residential buildings. This summer, Eugene became the first city in Oregon to direct its staff to draft ordinances prohibiting gas hookups in new homes. It’s unclear whether Portland would go that route.
About half of the homes in Multnomah County currently use a gas appliance, mostly for heat via gas furnaces, boilers, and wall units. Many of these households also likely use gas stoves, but the exact proportion is unknown, according to the county report.
Scientists have for years linked nitrogen dioxide to pediatric asthma, Plaut said. Homes with gas stoves have concentrations of that chemical that are 50% to over 400% higher than homes with electric stoves.
Asthma is among the most prevalent chronic illnesses in the county, with one in 10 adults reporting an asthma diagnosis. County data shows asthma rates are higher in low-income communities and communities of color, whose residents are more likely to live in neighborhoods with polluted air and more likely to use gas stoves as supplemental heat sources.
More recent studies have linked gas stoves to emissions of benzene, a carcinogen that accumulates in the body and can cause multiple health effects, especially blood cancers.
“There is no safe level of benzene and stoves are leaking it 24 hours a day,” Plaut said. “If you live in a home with a gas stove, you are exposed.”
If that’s not enough bad news, gas stoves also contribute to outdoor air pollution — so transitioning to electric alternatives will help reduce greenhouse gas emissions that fuel climate change.
The natural gas industry disputes those studies. David Roy, a spokesperson for NW Natural, Oregon’s largest natural gas utility, said the county’s report consists of “hastily prepared messages and recommendations that are being made without the support of robust process and scientific assessment. ” Roy said that proper ventilation when cooking is key to mitigating cooking-related air emissions, for both gas and electric stoves.
“We believe the lack of process and unsupported assertions by the county are so egregious that we are considering all of our options,” Roy said in an email.
In recent years, the gas industry has tried to push back on the bad image of gas by paying influencers to promote gas stoves and running ads to promote gas. This summer, more than 30 organizations and Oregon lawmakers asked the state’s Department of Justice to investigate NW Natural over what they claim is false advertising to the public and in schools.
While the county doesn’t offer monetary incentives to residents who want to switch from gas to electric, starting in 2023 households will be eligible for incentives through the federal Inflation Reduction Act. Those incentives include up to $8,000 per household for an electric heat pump, $1,750 for a heat pump water heater, and $840 for an electric stove.
And not everyone needs to splurge on an expensive induction stove — an electric appliance some gourmet cooks and professional chefs believe mimics or improves on gas stoves’ qualities. Home cooks can buy less expensive ceramic top electric stoves.
Households that can’t afford or choose not to go electric can still mitigate their exposure to pollutants, including by using electric appliances such as crockpots or electric kettles, cooking on the back burners, and using a fan that vents outdoors or opening a window while cooking (though research shows ventilation does not eliminate nitrous oxide).
Plaut said residents and businesses should also think beyond gas stoves. While furnaces and water heaters don’t vent indoors, they add to outdoor pollution.
“We know that everything we burn, we breathe, so we need to get away from burning fossil fuels — not just for climate reasons but also for health reasons,” Plaut said.
– Gosia Wozniacka; gwozniacka@oregonian.com; @gosiawozniacka
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