There’s a lot going on in the world, yet gas stoves have been stealing the spotlight over the past few weeks, spurring heated debates among concerned parents, flustered politicians, passionate climate activists, and health experts.
It all started when a study published in December in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health suggested that 12.7% of current childhood asthma in the US is “attributable” to gas stove use — a risk that the researchers said is similar to that of secondhand smoke exposure.
The findings aren’t particularly groundbreaking; people have known for years that gas stoves are one source of indoor air pollution — among many — that can contribute to asthma. However, the news still sent shivers down the spines of many parents, who are now worried they’re unintentionally setting their children up for a future of coughing, wheezing, and shortness of breath.
Asthma is the leading chronic disease in children, affecting about 7.5 million kids in the US. Its prevalence has increased in the last 30 years for all demographics, but long-standing disparities still hold. More than twice as many Black children than white children have asthma, and in 2019 specifically, they had a death rate that was eight times that of white kids.
The same day the study was published, lawmakers, including Democrats Sen. Cory Booker and Rep. Don Beyer, sent a letter to the US Consumer Product Safety Commission asking the agency to evaluate the health risks that gas stoves pose to Americans, particularly people of color and those with low incomes who are more likely to live in areas with greater outdoor air pollution and in smaller homes with poor ventilation.
In an interview with Bloomberg published more than three weeks later, a CPSC commissioner, Rich Trumka Jr., called gas stoves a “hidden hazard” and said that “any option is on the table,” including a federal ban on the household appliance.
The remarks pissed a lot of people off, including this chef who taped himself to his gas stove and this lawmaker who said that “maniacs” from the White House can pry his gas stove from his “cold dead hands” because he will “NEVER” give it up.
Long story short, Trumka quickly walked back his comments the same day and said the CPSC “isn’t coming for anyone’s gas stoves.” Then the agency chair chimed in two days later and said he isn’t looking to ban the appliances, but that the agency is exploring ways to address their health risks, including “strengthening voluntary safety standards.”
Now that we’re all caught up, let’s get to the point: Yes, published scientific research has for decades shown that gas stoves are associated with respiratory problems such as asthma. That’s because they release a host of harmful pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, formaldehyde (a known carcinogen), and nitrogen dioxide, that can irritate your airways, some more than others.
But (and that’s a big but) asthma is a complicated disease that involves not only genetic factors, but also other environmental ones, including air pollution and respiratory infections, as well as exposure to secondhand smoke, dust mites, cockroaches, pets, mold, cleaning supplies, and even your furniture — some of which may pose greater health risks than gas stoves. Even some factors like birth by Cesarean section and antibiotic use as a baby are linked to asthma.
The lead author of the new study, Brady Seals, a manager in the Carbon-Free Buildings program at RMI — a nonprofit that works on sustainability research — made it clear that she and her colleagues did not say or conclude that gas stoves cause asthma, but rather her study highlights just one association (of several) that links respiratory health risks to gas stoves.
“It's a risk. It's not a 100% risk, nobody is saying that, but it's a risk that I do think parents should know about so they can make decisions for their family,” Seals told BuzzFeed News, “and there are several intermediary steps you can take if it's not feasible to replace your gas stove.”
So while concerns are valid, it’s important to remember how many factors contribute to asthma risks and focus on what you can control (like gas stove use).
Dr. Christy Sadreameli, a pediatric pulmonologist and assistant professor of pediatrics at Johns Hopkins, told BuzzFeed News that, as a lover of gas stoves herself, the new studies made her shift her own views on the appliances, but that they shouldn’t spur any major concerns.
“I don't want people panicking or everyone feeling like they need to go out and renovate their whole kitchen or remove their appliances. But I do think this is the beginning of awareness and that's why it may be so earth-shattering for people,” Sadreameli said. “Definitely think about reducing exposure when you can, but most of all, make sure that [your kids’] asthma is well controlled. The great thing is that we have a lot of medications in our arsenal for that.”
First, we have to talk about gas stove emissions
More than 40 million US homes contain gas stoves that run on “natural gas,” which is primarily made up of methane (70–90%), along with ethane, butane, and propane. When burned, the gas emits a cluster of byproducts, many of which can be harmful to your health and the environment.
A 2008 EPA report says homes with gas stoves have about 50% to more than 400% higher average nitrogen dioxide concentrations than homes with electric stoves. This gas in particular has been linked to respiratory conditions, like asthma. However, whether it and other toxic pollutants can hurt your lungs depends on the level and length of exposure and can be more harmful for some people than others, including children, older people, those with lung conditions, and people living in lower-income households.
A study Stanford published last January found that in just a few minutes of cooking, Californians who didn’t use range hoods or had poor ventilation, especially in smaller kitchens, were exposed to nitrogen dioxide levels that surpassed the EPA’s guidelines for one-hour outdoor exposure. (There are no regulations on indoor air pollution in the US.)
That same study also found that methane, a potent greenhouse gas that has a warming potential about 86 times greater than carbon dioxide, leaks from gas stoves even while they're turned off.
Later in the year, the same researchers revealed that unburned natural gas isn’t as clean as everyone assumed; they found benzene — a cell-destroying, cancer-causing chemical — in 99% of unburned samples taken from gas stoves in California. (Benzene can also be found in paints, furniture wax, detergents, and tobacco smoke.) A study in Boston found similar levels of benzene in gas stoves there.
It’s not clear if gas stoves can directly cause asthma, but the research is strong enough at least for the American Medical Association to adopt a resolution in 2022 that formally recognized that the appliances increase the risk and severity of asthma.
A meta-analysis of 41 studies published between 1977 and 2013 from across the globe found that children living in homes with gas stoves have a 32% higher risk of asthma than children who do not live in homes with the stoves. While the researchers concluded the risk was “relatively small,” the public health impact is “considerable” given the number of homes with gas stoves.
A 2017 report by the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found that gas stoves were the most commonly cited indoor environmental trigger of children’s asthma symptoms, slightly more than pet dander or having carpets or rugs in the bedroom. The other main indoor asthma triggers were wood-burning fireplaces or stoves, pets in the bedroom, mice or rats, mold, and smoking. (The report looked at survey data from 2006 to 2010 about triggers or exacerbation of symptoms in children already diagnosed with asthma.)
Point is, health risks from gas stoves can vary from person to person. Generally, healthy people, or those with larger or well-ventilated kitchens where gases can dissipate, don’t necessarily need to worry as much.
That said, there’s more to asthma than meets the eye.
Now let’s talk about all the other (more likely) reasons you could develop asthma
All right, so now we know gas stoves emit a bunch of pollutants. Just because they do, however, doesn’t mean we’re all destined to develop asthma or some other respiratory calamity.
In fact, the insides of our homes are filthy. The EPA says indoor air pollution levels may be two to five, and sometimes more than 100, times higher than those outside, meaning there’s a whole lot more floating in our air than toxic emissions from your gas stove.
Unfortunately, there isn’t a clear list that rates all indoor asthma triggers, so it’s hard to compare gas stove health threats to those of other indoor pollutants, including paint products, cockroaches, candles, cleaning supplies, dust mites, pet dander, secondhand cigarette smoke, mold, and carpets. To reduce the risk of asthma from these kinds of pollutants, experts say you should routinely clean food crumbs from the floor, dust furniture, and have professionals check for more serious pollutants such as mold, radon, lead, and asbestos.
But of course, not everyone responds similarly to these pollutants, and some won’t at all, no matter how dusty and crusty the inside of their homes may be.
Allergies, for one, are responsible for most asthma symptoms or flare-ups, according to the American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology, but in some children, non-allergic triggers like cold air and exercise can cause asthma symptoms.
A family history of asthma can usually predict pretty well if a child will go on to develop the condition, but research shows it’s not guaranteed.
Vanderbilt University researchers, in 2018, published a study that reviewed 32 meta-analyses on the association between individual risk factors and asthma development in children between 0 and 13 years old (most kids experience asthma symptoms by age 6).
The team found that about 51% of asthma cases in children were attributable to RSV infections and antibiotic use during infancy. The other greatest risk factors were birth by C-section, being overweight or obese, pre- and postnatal secondhand smoke exposure, and sensitivity to allergens.
Sadreameli agrees. She said that while the data on many of these risk factors are a little mixed, respiratory infections, especially the common cold, are “by far” the main causes or exacerbations of asthma in children. And the risks multiply when layering all other potential asthma triggers a child may be exposed to inside or outside the home.
Catching a cold isn’t 100% preventable, but making sure your child, especially if they have asthma or are prone to it, washes their hands, avoids other sick kids, and wears a mask when appropriate can reduce their chances of experiencing a serious asthma attack.
“The best, most important thing we can do for patients with chronic asthma is make sure they're proactive with their symptoms, on the right medication regimen, and getting care when needed because people do still die from asthma,” Sadreameli said. “It’s thankfully not super common, but it can happen. So that's why we take it very seriously.”
It’s also important to note that pollutants outside the home, such as those coming from cars or factories, can contribute to the development of asthma as well, which research shows disproportionately affects people with lower incomes.
What you can do to lower exposure to gas stoves (if you still care about it)
Let’s get the obvious out of the way: No, it’s not easy to replace your gas stove and buy an electric one or an induction cooktop, especially for renters who don’t own their living spaces. But there are steps you can take to minimize your exposure to gas stove pollution.
Seals said you can buy a low-cost air quality monitor if you want, but keep in mind its sensitivity and accuracy for gases like nitrogen dioxide aren’t the best.
Those devices are better at detecting particles floating in the air.
She suggests using a plug-in induction cooktop or other electric appliances if you can, such as kettles, toasters, microwaves, and Instant Pots, to reduce gas stove use. Induction cooktops use electromagnetic energy to heat up cookware, rather than heating the surface of the range.
Some other tips to consider:
- Always try to turn exhaust fans or range hoods on while cooking. You’ll also want to leave ventilation systems running for at least five minutes after cooking to collect any lingering pollutants. And if you can control it, try to ensure exhaust fans or range hoods vent to the outside.
- Open your windows while cooking; just five minutes can have a large impact, Seals said.
- Install low-level (more sensitive) carbon monoxide detectors in your home.
- When possible, cook on the back burners, which are closer to ventilation systems.
- Clean filters on your exhaust hoods regularly with soap and water.
- Use a fan, but only if it’s blowing air out an open window or door.
- Make sure your gas stove flame tip is blue; a yellow-tipped flame indicates improper adjustment and increased pollution.
- You can keep children away from the kitchen while cooking to reduce health risks, but Seals said some studies have shown gas stove pollutants can make their way into kids’ bedrooms.
- Run an air cleaner with a HEPA carbon filter.
A 2014 study actually tested some of these steps and found that replacing your gas stove with an electric one is best at reducing the most indoor pollution, followed by using an air purifier with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) and carbon filters. Running ventilation hoods didn’t significantly reduce pollutants, the study found, although experts say turning it on is better than nothing.
If you are planning on purchasing an electric stove for whatever reason, the good news is that you can receive rebates and tax credits thanks to the Inflation Reduction Act. You’ll have to check with your state’s energy department to get specific details, but you can use this calculator to estimate how much money you can get back.
Planning on keeping your gas stove? Experts suggest regularly maintaining and cleaning it, and consider having a professional inspect all pipe connections to make sure there aren’t any leaks.