Frequent Sea Change Radio listeners have known for a while about the drawbacks of gas stoves – it turns out they’re considerably worse for both the environment and human health as compared to their electric countertop counterparts. Recent statements from the Consumer Product Safety Commission concerning the possible regulation of gas kitchen appliances have unleashed a sudden chorus of cries for rebellion. It’s not just restauranteurs and chefs who are worried about changing their cooking style, there’s a segment from the more cantankerous crevices of the American political underbelly getting pretty hot under the collar over this one – we’ll call them the gassy right. This week on Sea Change Radio we speak with ProPublica reporter, Lisa Song, to discuss how gas ranges have become part of the culture wars, learn about induction cooking technology, and hear about her own experience as a renter in New York City with an old, leaky gas appliance.
00:02 Narrator – This is Sea Change Radio covering the shift to sustainability. I’m Alex Wise.
00:22 Lisa Song – Asthma, definitely childhood asthma in particular, there’s a lot of studies showing kids in less affluent neighborhoods are often suffering a lot more from asthma, and that’s due to a combination of issues. A lot of times those homes are near highways and factories and, you know, refineries and other giant sources of air pollution. So those kids and families are already breathing in on equal, you know, large amounts of air pollutants, and then in addition to all of that, the cooking they do indoors is exacerbating their asthma. Further with this nitrogen dioxide.
01:00 Narrator – Frequent Sea Change Radio listeners have known for a while about the drawbacks of gas stoves – it turns out they’re considerably worse for both the environment and human health as compared to their electric countertop counterparts. Recent statements from the Consumer Product Safety Commission concerning the possible regulation of gas kitchen appliances have unleashed a sudden chorus of cries for rebellion. It’s not just restauranteurs and chefs who are worried about changing their cooking style, there’s a segment from the more cantankerous crevices of the American political underbelly getting pretty hot under the collar over this one – we’ll call them the gassy right. This week on Sea Change Radio we speak with ProPublica reporter, Lisa Song, to discuss how gas ranges have become part of the culture wars, learn about induction cooking technology, and hear about her own experience as a renter in New York City with an old, leaky gas appliance.
02:16 Alex Wise (AW) – I’m joined now on Sea Change Radio by Lisa Song she is a reporter for ProPublica she covers the environment Lisa, welcome back to Sea Change Radio.
02:24 Lisa Song (LS) – Thanks for having me.
02:26 AW – So you have a piece from January 23rd entitled what to know about the risks of gas stoves and appliances. And we’ll, we’ll link to that on seachangeradio.com this Pro Publica piece that you wrote. It spoke to me because it seemed like we were in the same boat as renters who have grown up cooking on gas stoves. I think a lot of Americans are kind of turning on the stove with a new curiosity and maybe even a fear. Why don’t you walk us through first your personal experience that you just had? Most recently, not just with your own gas stove, but researching this.
03:06 LS – Yeah, so for years I had been vaguely following the news of various local efforts to ban gas stoves in future construction and buildings and that kind of thing. It was never a topic I’d written about, I just followed it kind of in the background and then last fall when I was baking. One day I suddenly noticed this very distinct rotten egg odor which told me that my stove was leaking and as a climate reporter I knew this was a problem. I was also worried about a possible explosive risk and start thinking back to various studies that had come out about air pollution risks as well so I ended up borrowing a gas leak detector from a friend. So once I borrowed the recorder and turned on my oven, the recorder basically lit up and told me that I had a giant methane leak from the oven. And the detector said that the leak was so large I should ventilate the area immediately and move to a safe location. So I ended up taking a video of what this detector shows. And then sending the video plus a photo of the user manual for the detector to my landlord. And that was enough to convince my landlord to switch out my oven for a different oven.
04:27 AW – But a gas stove nonetheless.
04:29 LS – Yes, yes, the replacement was also a gas stove. I’m pretty sure everyone in my apartment building has a gas stove range, but the good thing is, once the new stove was installed, I checked it again with the same methane detector and this time there was still a very small leak, but it was, you know, way better. Than the last stove. So for me that was a win.
04:52 AW – So we’ve had Eric Lebel on Sea Change Radio last year. He’s at the forefront of researching gas leaks and the connection with appliances. You spoke to him for your piece, correct?
05:02 LS Yes, yes.
05:17 AW – So we’ve had him on and listeners can go back and listen to that February 2022 interview we did with Eric, but I wanted to update listeners on what’s been happening on the gas stove front. It’s become politically charged. How did this kind of just occur all of a sudden we we’ve known that gas emits harmful pollutants into the air. Gas stoves are not the healthiest system, but why now? Why did it just become kind of at the forefront of the culture wars Lisa?
05:35 LS – Yeah, so back in December. I believe someone from the US Consumer Product Safety Commission. Mentioned that they would consider regulating gas stoves and even said they would consider a potential ban, and I think it was the word ban that really turned the issue into a national debate. Suddenly everyone was writing about it. People were speculating wildly, and some people really thought that it meant the government was coming to take away their gas stoves, which was something that was never on the table. Nobody’s going to come into your house and remove. Your gas stoves, even the talk of a proposed ban meant that they might consider at some point phasing out gas stoves for future purchase and things like that. You know, years down the line. The Commission has since softened their language and stepped back from really using the word ban, but it was that one news item that really put this into the national spotlight. Before that, a lot of people had been following this issue, but it was mostly people who were climate activists or public health. Advocates and others in that space and now suddenly this became headline news, TV news and everyone. It seemed, had an.
06:50 AW – Is the fear that landlords have legitimate in that eventually they may have to incur major costs to replace gas stoves in their tenants units with, let’s say the latest more expensive induction stoves?
07:05 LS – Yeah, I mean in the case of my landlord, I’m sure that they did not want the risks, both health and safety and financial and liability of what might happen if if the explosive risk actually resulted in an explosion, right? That was a pretty obvious. This big leak with a with a major life threatening risk there, so it was obviously in their best interest to get rid of that giant problem. There are going to be various rebates and things like that from the government to help people reduce the cost of purchasing a new electric stove. Or a new induction stove. I am not aware of any local legislation that would force current landlords to replace all of their stoves. From what I understand, the the kind of local legislation is just mostly about targeting future bans on putting gas stoves into new housing construct.
08:03 AW – And what kind of pushback is being funded by the fossil fuel industry that you can surmise? I mean, this is a very deep pocketed industry, and when one of their flagship products in terms of home appliances is under attack, I can see them fighting back with a vengeance. Is that an element with political atmosphere, or the politicization of this? Because you had mentioned how the consumer protection word ban kind of set a lot of people on edge and you, you’d see things like, I think Ronnie Jackson, the who’s like a I don’t know if he’s a congressman, but he’s a Texas Doctor Who used to be a White House doctor. He was like “you can take my gas stove from my cold, dead hands” and that became kind of a meme, almost. It’s like you’re not taking my gas stove and I I like cooking with gas, but I also like breathing clean air.
08:57 LS – There’s been a lot of great reporting locally around various local bands and how during the time of debating those proposals, there’s been funded lobbying from the gas industry to try to tell people to vote against the ban one reporter who’s written about this extensively on a national level is Rebecca Leber. She’s done some really great stories. Really, tracing decades of industry funded advertising and how they are linking, how they’re advertising links, gas stoves to healthy cooking, and good kitchens and kind of makes it impossible to imagine cooking in any other way. In more recent years. Her reporting has shown that they’re funding influencers on social media like Instagram and TikTok to do posts about how much they enjoy cooking on their gas stove.
09:51 AW – And you mentioned in your ProPublica piece. How cooking with gas was like this very deliberate early influencer campaign from the 1930s where they would get like Bob Hope to incorporate gas jokes into his routine, et cetera. I had no idea about that.
10:10 LS – Yeah, that was really interesting. That was from one of Rebecca Leber’s pieces where she reported on how the gas industry really embraced the term cooking with gas, and that’s just something that’s a colloquial phrase now, and we all sort of know what it means when we use it in everyday conversation. And clearly as her reporting shows, it was something they they helped to further popularize.
10:33 AW – So Lisa, let’s turn to induction oven technology. It’s very promising and I don’t know why people are necessarily so reticent to embrace it. It’s very different than the old electric coil stove tops that. People may have first encountered in the 70s and 80s. Why don’t you walk us through induction cooking technology where it is some of the elements that listeners should be aware of?
11:01 LS – Yeah, so induction stoves have become more popular in the US recently, and induction technology uses Electro magnets to heat up food. It can feel a little bit weird cooking on it for the first time – I actually bought myself an induction hot plate last summer because during the heat waves I just did not want to cook with an actual fire in my kitchen. It was already so hot and humid and one of the first things I noticed about the hot plate. Is that it didn’t get that hot? You know if I put my hand right next to where the hot surface? Is I didn’t burn myself so it just felt cooler to use it in the summer there. There can definitely be a bit of a learning curve to learning how to use an induction stove. There are various settings and you can learn to kind of cater your cooking using temperature or certain other settings. And it is something that I think can take a little bit getting used to, but there are now. Also, funnily enough, people who are influencers touting the benefits of induction stoves on social media as well. And certain chefs have gotten into that. But I’ve also read that for public health reasons, there are some commercial kitchens that are switching to induction stoves as a way to reduce risks of heat exhaustion and heat stroke during the summer, because those large kitchens can just get so hot when there are a lot of natural gas flame cooking going on in the summer.
12:34 AW – I hadn’t even considered that from a professional chefs standpoint. That’s gotta be a little bit of a real wrinkle. They’re going to have to kind of relearn a lot of their dishes and a lot of their timing that has to be kind of recalibrated with an induction oven, I imagine.
12:52 LS – Yeah, I mean, I do think that most of the people I’m aware of who have switched to induction stoves and ovens are folks who are aware of the health. And the climate impacts of gas stoves. And that is really what’s pushing them to switch to induction. And some of those people you know, have been able to take advantage of state rebates to help them make that switch, but it does. It does cost money to switch to an induction stove. One of the guides that I linked to in my article shows that it can cost more than twice as much to get an induction stove compared to a natural gas stove, but again, that’s where some of those rebates can come in and cut down on the costs.
13:46 (Music break)
14:29 AW – This is Alex Wise on sea change radio and I’m speaking to ProPublica reporter Lisa Song. So you mentioned how your induction burner that you got the hot plate keeps your kitchen a little cooler. Just to clarify, the plate itself is not as hot as like a gas stove top, but the food would be just as hot. And when you think about the time that it takes, let’s say to boil a pot of water, let’s say it takes 10 minutes on your gas stove top versus 3 minutes. I would imagine it’s a lot more efficient to boil water 3 minutes in 3 minutes than 10 minutes in terms of the ambient temperature in your kitchen.
15:06 LS – Yes, yes it definitely makes that difference and you know, as a New Yorker, I’m in a an apartment where I don’t have a window in my kitchen and my kitchen is the farthest away from my wall air conditioning unit. So again, the kitchen just tended to be the hottest part of my apartment every summer, and anything I could do to cool it down was a big relief.
15:27 AW And do you have a ventilation hood over your oven? Your stove?
15:31 LS – Yes, yes, I do have a ventilation hood and as I was reporting out this story and doing research, I made sure to check to see that it vented outside and from what I can tell and having described what I could see of my ventilation hood to some of the experts I interviewed, we concluded that it is a good vent that vents to the outside. So these days when I do use my oven for anything, I always turn on my hood.
15:58 AW – And the pots and pans that one would use with an induction oven have to be magnetic, why don’t you walk us through what that could possibly mean? And for people who are looking to make the switch, would it also include having to overhaul all of your pots and pans, Lisa.
16:17 LS – Right, so that is something you can do something called a magnet test where you should take a something like a refrigerator magnet or a strong magnet and see if it sticks to the bottom of your pots and pans if it sticks then that pot should work with your induction induction stove. If it falls off and doesn’t stick, then you have to buy a new pot or pan that works with the Electro magnets on the induction stove. Me, personally, I was lucky. I only found one pot that I had to replace. Because it didn’t work on the induction stove.
16:53 AW – So Lisa, can you address some of the studies that you found connecting the dots for gas stoves, asthma, respiratory issues and greenhouse gas emissions? I know the one that got a lot of press was this 13% rate increase of of asthma. With gas stoves I I’m messing this up, but that seemed like a little hazy that study, but it was an easy number to remember. It became kind of a common talking point, but there’s a lot of other studies that back up the basic underlying idea, which seems pretty clear.
17:31 LS – Yeah, so my story was divided into several section, each highlighting a different type of risk from gas stoves and the first one was just the main component of natural gas is methane, and methane is a very powerful greenhouse gas, and there was a study that analyzed a bunch of gas stoves in California in residential homes. And they found that there were big methane leaks and actually more than 3/4 of the leaks came from stoves that were actually turned off at the time, so you didn’t even need to turn on the device for methane to be leaking out. And you know when they added up the leak rates and extrapolated them across the country, it would be the equivalent of the greenhouse gas emissions for half a million cars. Yeah it was interesting and I I think that study got a lot of press when it came out at the time. The next risk for methane is just that large methane leaks can cause explosions. This is obviously the thing that drove me to actually write my story because I was smelling so much gas in my house. It was definitely a safety risk and the best advice here from experts is if you are smelling that very distinctive rotten odor smell, a rotten egg odor. Then you should leave your building and call your gas company. That odor actually comes from a chemical that gas companies add to the natural gas. In order to help warn you of largely. And then another risk that I wrote about is nitrogen dioxide, which is the gas that causes asthma. There have been a lot of studies connecting childhood asthma to nitrogen dioxide in the home, and a lot of other studies showing that homes with gas stoves have higher concentrations of nitrogen dioxide what’s really interesting here is that the EPA actually has national air quality standards for nitrogen dioxide outdoors, but those standards don’t apply to indoor air, even though in homes with gas stoves. There’s enough nitrogen dioxide in the air that it would fail and exceed those outdoor air quality standards.
19:52 AW – And we’ve seen some controlled studies recently right near you in the Bronx with public housing and some of the air quality issues there that’s pretty stark. Why don’t you recap that for us if you can?
20:05 LS – Yeah, there was just a really great story published by the city where they talked about. There was a program in the Bronx for public housing residents and it was a pilot program across 20 different apartments where the households traded in their gas stoves for electric induction stove. And once that was done, they studied the air quality in those homes and found that there was a 35% decrease in nitrogen dioxide and a more than 40% difference in concentrations of carbon monoxide, which is another indoor air pollutant, and the timing of this study is just. Really interesting because it came out right as the nation was really interested in this gas stove debate and it was on everybody’s minds. And I also think it’s really great that they did this study for public housing residents because the socioeconomic, inequality angle of this is really important.
21:03 AW – When you look at epidemiological studies of asthma, there’s a real correlation to socioeconomic issues, correct?
21:11 LS – Yeah, asthma definitely is childhood asthma in particular. There’s a lot of studies showing kids in less affluent neighborhoods are often suffering a lot more from asthma, and that’s due to a combination of issues. A lot of times those homes are near highways and factories. And, you know, refineries and other giant sources of air pollution, so those kids and families are already breathing in unequal. You know, large amounts of air pollutants, and then in addition to all of that, the cooking they do indoors is exacerbating their asthma further with this nitrogen dioxide. And there’s a lot of concern that as more people are able to trade in their gas stoves for electric or induction that because it can cost a lot of money to buy a new induction stove that those benefits will go primarily to more affluent households. And so I think this particular study where they were targeting the switch to people in public housing is is really important, and there’s a lot of public health advocates that want many more programs like this to make sure that those who can least afford buying their own new stove can get those benefits. So in addition, I have heard of some families who end up using their stoves, or particularly their ovens as a source of heat, particularly if they if maybe their regular heater, isn’t working very well in the winter, you know you need to stay warm and sometimes using the stove as a way of doing that, and that of course would just release additional nitrogen dioxide and make the air quality even worse inside that home.
22:54 (Music Break)
23:33 AW -This is Alex Wise on Sea Change Radio and I’m speaking to ProPublica reporter Lisa Song. So you told us your story with your landlord and you got your stove replaced with another gas stove. But what if somebody is ready to make the induction leap and they’re a renter. What can they do to kind of inspire or instigate a change from their landlord to an induction stove? And then also for homeowners, what kind of rebates can we see down the road that can take a bite out of that upfront cost of switching to induction cooking, Lisa?
24:14 LS – Yeah, so I think the biggest kind of rebate you can see is there will be consumer rebates coming out of the Inflation Reduction Act, and I linked to a couple of those guides in my story. Those will allow anyone, there are certain limits for income to get different kinds of rebates for replacing gas appliances with electric or induction of appliances. Some states, like Massachusetts, also have their own separate rebate programs and then in terms of landlords, I’m not aware of any local legislation that would really force landlords to switch away from gas if their tenants request it. I’m not aware of anything that targeted, but again, it might be the sort of thing where the landlord might be swayed by some of these arguments relating to health and safety. Or if you can’t get your landlord to switch things out, one of the easiest things you can do in our guide we we talk about just certain steps that people can take, and one of the easiest things you can do is open a window to improve ventilation when you’re cooking in your kitchen and also to turn on your range hood the turn on the hood above your stove, assuming it’s one of those range hoods that vents to the outside and we have a have a little guide on how you can figure out whether your hood does that. If your hood is one of those that. Hence, to the outside you should turn it on every single time you cook on your stove, even if you’re just boil. Water the other thing we mentioned is you can buy yourself an induction hot plate. I got myself one and it is only one burner but I do use it a lot and try to use it whenever I can instead of my normal burners.
26:09 AW – So why don’t you break down some of the chemicals that are present in gas stoves?
26:15 LS – Yeah, so the three specific toxins we talk about in the story are methane, nitrogen dioxide and benzene, and the benzene leaks come from a really well publicized study that came out recently where researchers analyzed gas samples from residential kitchens and found that nearly all of them contained benzene, so there were benzene leaks basically everywhere they looked, and the way benzene got into the gas is that raw natural gas is mostly methane, but contains a lot of other chemicals like benzene and gas companies will strip out the impurities before they pipe the processed gas to your home, but they can’t eliminate or they don’t eliminate all traces of the toxins. So there are small traces of benzene in the natural gas and that leak was what these researchers detected. And because benzene is a really powerful carcinogen, this was a study that got a lot of press, and I personally know of someone who switched out their gas stove for an electric or induction stove because they read about this benzene study in particular.
27:31 AW – And that’s benzene – benzene exposure can lead to leukemia, for example.
27:37 LS – Yes, yes that that is the main risk of benzene. It is a carcinogen that can cause leukemia. It’s one of the most well known carcinogens. There have been studies and knowledge about workplace benzene carcinogen risk, since at least the 1950s.
27:55 AW – She’s a reporter for ProPublica, Lisa Song. Lisa, thanks so much for being my guest on Sea Change Radio.
28:01 LS – Thanks for having me.
28:17 Narrator – You’ve been listening to Sea Change Radio. Our intro music is by Sanford Lewis and our outro music is by Alex Wise. Additional music by George Benson, Robert Cray and John Mooney. To read a transcript of this show, go to SeaChangeRadio.com. To stream or download the show or subscribe to our podcast on our site or visit our archives to hear from Doris Kearns Goodwin, Gavin Newsom, Stewart Brand and many others and tune in to Sea Change Radio next week as we continue making connections for sustainability. For Sea Change Radio, I’m Alex Wise.