A growing body of research suggests that gas stoves can pose health risks, especially for people with respiratory ailments. Sean Gladwell/Getty Images
Cooks love their gadgets, from countertop slow cookers to instant-read thermometers. Now, there’s increasing interest in magnetic induction cooktops – surfaces that cook much faster than conventional stoves, without igniting a flame or heating an electric coil.
Some of this attention is overdue: Induction has long been popular in Europe and Asia, and it is more energy-efficient than standard stoves. But recent studies have also raised concerns about indoor air emissions from gas stoves.
The gas industry’s position is that gas stoves are a minor source of indoor air pollutants. This is true in some homes, especially with respect to exposures averaged over months or years.
But there are many homes in which gas stoves contribute more to indoor nitrogen dioxide levels than pollution from outdoor sources does, especially for short-term “peak” exposures during cooking time. For example, a study in Southern California showed that around half of homes exceeded a health standard based on the highest hour of nitrogen dioxide concentrations, almost entirely because of indoor emissions.
How can one gas stove contribute more to your exposure than an entire highway full of vehicles? The answer is that outdoor pollution disperses over a large area, while indoor pollution concentrates in a small space.
How much indoor pollution you get from a gas stove is affected by the structure of your home, which means that indoor environmental exposures to NO₂ are higher for some people than for others. People who live in larger homes, have working range hoods that vent to the outdoors and have well-ventilated homes in general will be less exposed than those in smaller homes with poorer ventilation.
But even larger homes can be affected by gas stove usage, especially since the air in the kitchen does not immediately mix with cleaner air elsewhere in the home. Using a range hood when cooking, or other ventilation strategies such as opening kitchen windows, can bring down concentrations dramatically.
Methane and hazardous air pollutants
Nitrogen dioxide is not the only pollutant of concern from gas stoves. Some pollution with potential impacts on human health and Earth’s climate occurs when stoves aren’t even running.
A 2022 study estimated that U.S. gas stoves not in use emit methane – a colorless, odorless gas that is the main component of natural gas – at a level that traps as much heat in the atmosphere as about 400,000 cars.
Some of these leaks can go undetected. Although gas distributors add an odorant to natural gas to ensure that people will smell leaks before there is an explosion risk, the smell may not be strong enough for residents to notice small leaks.
Some people also have a much stronger sense of smell than others. In particular, those who have lost their sense of smell – whether from COVID-19 or other causes – may not smell even large leaks. One recent study found that 5% of homes had leaks that owners had not detected that were large enough to require repair.
This same study showed that leaking natural gas contained multiple hazardous air pollutants, including benzene, a cancer-causing agent. While measured concentrations of benzene did not reach health thresholds of concern, the presence of these hazardous air pollutants could be problematic in homes with substantial leaks and poor ventilation.
Reasons to switch: Health and climate
So, if you live in a home with a gas stove, what should you do and when should you worry? First, do what you can to improve ventilation, such as running a range hood that vents to the outdoors and opening kitchen windows while cooking. This will help, but it won’t eliminate exposures, especially for household members who are in the kitchen while cooking takes place.
If you live in a smaller home or one with a smaller closed kitchen, and if someone in your home has a respiratory disease like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, exposures may still be concerning even with good ventilation. Swapping out a gas stove for one that uses magnetic induction would eliminate this exposure while also providing climate benefits.
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Moving away from gas stoves is especially important if you are investing in home energy efficiency measures, whether you are doing it to take advantage of incentives, reduce energy costs or shrink your carbon footprint. Some weatherization steps can reduce air leakage to the outdoors, which in turn can increase indoor air pollution concentrations if residents don’t also improve kitchen ventilation.
In my view, even if you’re not driven to reduce your carbon footprint – or you’re just seeking ways to cook pasta faster – the opportunity to have cleaner air inside your home may be a strong motivator to make the switch.
Jonathan Levy has received funding from the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Health Effects Institute for studies on the contribution of outdoor and indoor sources to air pollution levels in homes.
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