I traveled around the developing world for more than a decade seeing and studying first-hand the damage that wood and charcoal do to the lungs of people – mostly women and children – who use it for cooking. Nearly half the world’s population cooks with solid fuels, and I was proud of my work to bring cleaner options and help prevent pneumonia, lung disease and other effects of breathing in smoke on a daily basis.
And when I got home from these trips, I would turn on my gas stove to cook meals – never once guessing that the invisible gas piped into my house, and its similarly invisible emissions, were also harmful.
The gas in our stoves is mostly methane, a short-lived but super-potent greenhouse gas with 100 times the climate-warming harm of carbon dioxide over a 10-year timeframe. When burned, methane converts to carbon dioxide, and burning gas in buildings for heating, cooling and cooking is responsible for about a tenth of the United States’ carbon emissions.
Burning natural gas also generates toxic pollutants in our homes, including nitrogen oxides. As documented in Health Effects from Gas Stove Pollution – a report I co-authored – these pollutants are implicated in a host of respiratory ailments. Gas stoves can produce air pollution levels indoors that would be illegal outdoors.
Children exposed to gas stove pollution have an increased risk of asthma. And nearly 50 years of research shows that children, low-income households and people of color are more likely to be harmed by this pollution.
There are things you can do to lessen the effects of toxic gas stove pollution, such as turning on range hoods or opening windows while cooking. However, these do nothing to eliminate the climate effect of methane, which can leak anywhere from the well head to the stove itself. The only way to get entirely rid of the pollution caused by gas stoves is to replace them with electric.
Electric stoves have a bad reputation to people who remember the coils of resistance stoves, which heated slowly and were not very responsive. But today we have a much better option: induction stoves. Powered by magnets, this new technology does everything that gas can, and also heats faster than gas and allows more precise temperature control.
Induction has caught on in a big way in Europe and other parts of the world, but is only starting to take off in the US, where induction stoves hold a less than 2% market share. There are still challenges around cost and even buying these stoves, and homeowners often have to wait to get induction stoves delivered.
Given the clear health and climate case for electric technologies for cooking and heating, various cities have begun to pass codes requiring that new homes be all-electric. But the gas industry is trying to strangle such policy momentum, using a variety of tactics from paying Instagram influencers to promote gas stoves to pushing for state preemption of municipal all-electric codes.
But even in states that preempt local all-electric codes, there is more that policymakers can do. Incentives are a powerful lever to not only push for induction stoves to replace gas in new homes, but to help homeowners and renters finance the switch from gas to electric in existing buildings.
Induction stoves heat quickly and are nearly three times as efficient as gas stoves. Based on these energy savings, a national EnergyStar rating would help cities, states and big box stores like Home Depot incentivize and promote induction stoves. If the health, climate and energy-saving benefits of induction stoves were monetized, policymakers would practically give them away.
Many consumers are unaware of the health impacts of gas stoves. The Consumer Product Safety Commission should consider requiring warning labels on gas stoves, like the warning labels on other products that pose health risks. And, particularly given what we learned during the Covid-19 pandemic about the links between air pollution and mortality from respiratory ailments, indoor air quality can and should be regulated in the same way that outdoor air quality is.
With wildfires raging across the United States, a new wave of coronavirus spreading across the globe, and the signs of the climate crisis everywhere, there has never been a more important time for governments to act. The humble stove may seem like a tiny part of a big problem – but it’s one of our most personal, immediate and tangible. It’s also one of the easiest to change.
Gas kept our lights on for decades and helped us transition from coal, but we now have solutions for a safer, cleaner, more resilient future. The time has come to go all-electric, both for our health and our future.
Brady Seals is a manager in the Rocky Mountain Institute’s carbon-free buildings program