Whether you know it or not, your home is filled with microscopic particles and other invisible pollutants that may affect your health to some degree.
Soot from candles, fumes emitted by furniture, microfibers from laundry, and proteins shed by pets or pests can all irritate your lungs. Even the dust hiding under your bed can be filled with allergy-triggering mites.
In fact, exposure to pollutants is sometimes worse inside your home than out, which isn’t great considering the average American spends almost 90% of their time inside. The Environmental Protection Agency says indoor air pollution levels may be two to five, and sometimes more than 100, times higher than those outside.
One of the most common sources of indoor air pollution might be sitting in your kitchen: a gas stove. The natural gas it burns is made up primarily 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.
More than 40 million US homes contain the appliances, which are often preferred for cooking because of precise heat control. However, gas stoves are also reentering the spotlight namely for their role in climate change.
In December, the New York City mayor signed a bill banning gas-powered stoves, furnaces, and hot water heaters in new buildings beginning in 2023. Other cities in California and Washington have issued similar bans.
The potential impact of gas stoves on the climate is real. Just last month, Eric Lebel and colleagues at Stanford University published a study in the journal Environmental Science & Technology that found methane, a potent greenhouse gas, leaks from gas stoves even while off. The researchers visited 53 California homes and rental properties between January 2020 and May 2021 and tested 18 brands of gas cooktops ranging from 3 to 30 years old.
They estimate that the annual methane produced by US gas stoves has a climate impact equal to the carbon dioxide emissions from about half a million gas-powered cars. It’s worth noting that methane, although it lingers in the air for less time than carbon dioxide, has a warming potential that’s about 86 times greater than its greenhouse gas cousin over a 20-year period.
While gas stoves’ effect on climate is the primary motivator behind much of the newer regulations and research, the pollutants the appliances release may affect your health, too.
Why are people concerned about gas stoves?
In addition to methane, gas stoves emit carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and formaldehyde (a known carcinogen) every time you bring those blue flames to life.
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.
Whether these toxic pollutants can hurt your lungs depends on the level and length of exposure, but they are more harmful for some people than others. Nitrogen dioxide, in particular, has been linked to respiratory conditions, like asthma.
A 2014 study used models to estimate that gas stoves expose about 12 million Californians to nitrogen dioxide levels and another 1.7 million to carbon monoxide levels that exceed ambient outdoor air standards set by the state in a typical winter week.
Generally, “any time there is ongoing exposure to something other than oxygen,” your lungs will suffer, Dr. Jamie Garfield, an associate professor of thoracic medicine and surgery at the Temple University Lewis Katz School of Medicine, told BuzzFeed News.
The recent Stanford study also measured nitrogen dioxide levels. In just a few minutes of cooking, people 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.)
The amount of pollutants in the air may also depend on your gas stove’s cleanliness, general maintenance, and surrounding conditions, such as ventilation and kitchen size. However, the Stanford study found no relationship between the age and cost of a stove and its emissions.
The American Public Gas Association noted the Stanford study did not look at the type of food being cooked or length of cooking time, which can affect indoor air pollution levels, or compare gas to other types of stoves. Both gas and electric stoves release emissions and “federal agencies do not consider gas ranges to be a health hazard for consumers,” it said in a statement.
Some people face greater health risks from gas stoves than others
The health risks from gas stoves can vary from person to person, according to Garfield. Generally, healthy people, or those with larger or well-ventilated kitchens where gasses can dissipate, don’t necessarily need to worry as much.
“To the individual sitting at that stove cooking dinner for their family, I don’t think there’s reason to be concerned,” Garfield said.
However, that may not be the case for people with respiratory illnesses or conditions, she said, such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. COPD includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis and is the fourth leading cause of death in the US.
“I wouldn’t say that every respiratory disease or chronic illness is likely to worsen in a home that has a gas burning stove, but certainly a disease that is related to the frequency and intensity of respiratory inhalant exposure will fare more poorly in this type of environment,” Garfield said.
The risks may also be more pronounced in children, older adults, and people living in lower-income households.
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 compared with 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.
One group of people that hasn’t been studied as well is restaurant workers, who spend hours each day working in kitchens with the gas-powered appliances. (In fact, the new NYC regulation has an exemption for the use of gas stoves in commercial kitchens.)
“Our culinary population is in the trenches day in and day out for 10+ hours a day. I’m shocked that nobody has studied it as of yet,” Chef Christopher Galarza, founder and culinary sustainability consultant for Forward Dining Solutions, a Pennsylvania-based business that helps other businesses switch to electric kitchen appliances, told BuzzFeed News in an email. “When that time comes, we are going to be blown away by the data.”
Galarza said none of the chefs he’s worked with on the East Coast are mindful of indoor air quality in their workplace, partly because he, and likely others, were “duped by the marketing of the gas industry calling it ‘clean burning gas.’”
He noted there are no systems in place, other than range hoods above stove tops, to protect restaurant staff from constant exposure to gas stove fumes.
But executive chef Rachelle Boucher, an electric kitchen expert and owner of Kitchens to Life, said “the tide is turning.”
“Food service workers are beginning to question our old mindset of being tough, working through exhaustion and injury, and putting our health last,” Boucher told us in an email.
What you can do to lower exposure to gas stove pollutants
There are steps you can take to lower your exposure and risks. But for some people, like those living in lower-income housing, it may be harder to take appropriate or necessary action.
Lower-income homes are more likely to be located in areas with high levels of outdoor air pollution, which also increases asthma risks, and to have inadequate ventilation. A 2019 study found people living in low-income homes with good ventilation had better lung function than those with poor air circulation. The research, published in the Journal of Exposure Science and Environmental Epidemiology, included more than 250 children and adults living in Colorado.
That’s why ventilation is key.
Always turn exhaust fans or range hoods on while cooking (even though they may be noisy). It’s a simple and effective tactic, yet many people forget or choose not to do it. A 2010–2011 survey of more than 370 Californians found 40–60% of respondents didn’t use their exhaust hood or open their windows while cooking.
You’ll also want to leave ventilation systems running for at least five minutes after cooking to collect any lingering pollutants.
If you can control it, try to ensure exhaust fans or range hoods vent to the outside; although there are no federal regulations that require it, some states have their own laws in place.
Still, there aren’t any standards to ensure venting is adequate, according to Brady Seals, a manager in the Carbon-Free Buildings program at RMI — a nonprofit that works on sustainability research — and coauthor of a 2020 report that compiled decades of research on gas stove pollution and health.
Meanwhile, other gas appliances like hot water heaters and furnaces are required to vent outside in some states.
Here are some other ways to lower exposure to gas stove pollutants:
- Open windows or doors while cooking; just five minutes has 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
- Run an air cleaner with a HEPA carbon filter
- 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
Seals said you can buy a low-cost air quality monitor if you want, but keep in mind its sensitivity and accuracy for gasses like nitrogen dioxide aren’t the best. Those devices are better at detecting particles floating in the air.
You can also switch to an electric stove if you can. If not, regularly maintain and clean your gas stove, and consider having a professional inspect all pipe connections to make sure there aren’t any leaks.
Seals suggests using a plug-in induction cooktop or other electric appliances, 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.
“I’m not telling anyone that they need to rip out their gas stove right now and replace it. But when your gas stove dies or when it’s time for a new one, maybe consider electric or induction as an alternative,” Seals said.
How do gas stoves compare with other health threats in your home?
Because there isn’t “a full national accounting of asthma triggers,” Seals said 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.
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 2006–2010 about triggers or exacerbation of symptoms in children already diagnosed with asthma.)
To reduce the risk of asthma and lung problems in general, 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.
“There are a lot of things that we can do as individuals to reduce our exposure, but we need policymakers to [step up] and make sure the most vulnerable populations are benefitting from some of it first,” Seals said. “There really has never been a more urgent time to address gas stove pollution for climate and for health than now.”