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Wednesday, February 16, 2022

OPINION:

Recently, you may have seen some headlines linking your gas stove to health risks. Although you could be forgiven for thinking differently, the science actually shows you are safe.

Last month, the results of a study at Stanford University of methane emissions from natural gas stoves and their potential climate change effects were published in a peer-reviewed journal. The press release, however, expanded beyond the published work to argue that the work was about the climate and health impacts of gas stoves and ovens. The release announcing the study was blunt: “Stanford scientists find the climate and health impacts of natural gas stoves are greater than previously thought.”


The study spawned countless stories with similar headlines, many of which followed the release’s lead and drew a connection between gas stoves and worsened health.

Except the study didn’t really show that.

In fact, the study itself makes very minor connections to health issues. It compares two minutes of nitrogen oxides (NOx) released to a one-hour federal NOx standard for outdoor air. This is very much apples and oranges because the one-hour standard is meant to provide an exposure that may occur for one hour, not two minutes. Moreover, the actual wording in the study does not conclude that their findings would violate the NOx standard. The researchers merely made the comparison, not really using it as a significance criterion.  

It’s also useful to note how the measurements were taken. The researchers sealed their test kitchens in plastic tarps to concentrate the emissions so they would be easier to measure. While this is a novel and interesting method, the study results are useless for evaluating health-based exposures because no kitchen is set up like that. In other words, they weren’t simulating a real-life cooking experience.

Good indoor air quality research must include other factors, including the emissions from the cooked food. For example, what is being cooked is often the predominant source of emissions, rather than how you cook it. That’s an important fact because the authors of this latest study explicitly called for replacing your gas stoves with electric ones because of health impacts. Since a major source of emissions in your kitchen is the food you cook, replacing your gas stove with electric will do very little to address indoor air quality or health.

Unfortunately, many other studies have tried to connect gas stoves and ovens to health risks in your home. They cite extensive research to presumably support their advocacy for banning gas appliances and replacing them with electric ones. Still, the studies actually would lead you to more common-sense (and less expensive) solutions.

A non-peer-reviewed study in 2020 from researchers at UCLA (sponsored by the Sierra Club) linked gas appliances to adverse health impacts. I led a team that performed a critical review of that paper last year at the request of the California Restaurant Association. We found that in addition to making some of the same errors as the study released last month, the UCLA researchers frequently made statements that were not supported by the references they cited. We compared their findings against the appropriate metrics and found the emissions were below established health standards — even when there was no ventilation.

The body of research on this issue points less to the costly and drastic measure of replacing all of your gas appliances and more to ensuring proper ventilation in your kitchen. That’s true whether you use a gas cooktop or an electric one.

As a scientist, I’m always skeptical when I see frightening headlines about new studies. Sometimes those headlines are warranted, but it’s always good to check. As for whether gas stoves and ovens are a major threat to your health, I don’t see much beyond the headlines that would support this conclusion. That’s good news since most homeowners prefer gas stoves and can often save a lot of money by using them.

• Daniel Tormey, Ph.D., is president of Catalyst Environmental Solutions in Santa Monica, California.


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