Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Energy

Gas stoves might be a killer in the kitchen

This article is from the third chapter of Silent Killers, our editorial series on chronic disease.

The gas stove in your kitchen is cooking the planet and may be making you ill.

Six scientists told POLITICO that gas hobs are an important source of indoor air pollution that could be exacerbating, or even causing, a range of illnesses. Studies in the U.S. have linked the burners to climate change and toxic indoor air. But, for now, the EU is showing little sign of taking the concerns seriously or of mounting a response.

“If you had diesel exhaust in your kitchen at these concentrations, you would be really concerned,” said Nicola Carslaw, professor of indoor air chemistry at York University. “Because they would be 10 times the EU guidelines or whatever.”

More than 30 percent of energy used for cooking in EU homes comes from gas. While the health impacts are yet to be fully understood, experts, campaigners and a top chef recommended switching to electrical alternatives, including induction.  

Cooking with gas has a wider environmental impact beyond the kitchen. Natural gas — also known as fossil gas — is mostly methane, a greenhouse gas that heats the planet about 80 times more per ton than carbon dioxide (CO2). When stoves burn natural gas, CO2 gets released. But a recent study in the U.S. found around 1 percent of all methane supply was escaping from stoves through leaks or incomplete combustion. Nationwide, that could be having as much impact on the climate as running half a million cars for a year.

The European Commission has said it aims to phase out gas on the way to reaching the bloc’s goal of net-zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2050. The Continent’s reliance on Russian imports is geopolitically painful — particularly amid the escalating conflict in Ukraine. But member countries are divided between those that back a faster transition and those that want to use more gas for a time as a stepping stone away from dirtier coal power.

While the climate impacts of gas stoves are easily grasped, it’s the health impacts that remain understudied, experts said.

“You can see when you cook with gas that you do get higher concentrations” of dangerous gases “compared to electric,” said Carslaw. “If you’re modernizing your home, or your kitchen, an easy win to lower pollution levels would be to replace your hob to move away from gas.” 

It has been 40 years since Steffen Loft stopped using a gas stove on a hunch that it wouldn’t be good for his children’s health.

“If it’s on the walls, then it’s definitely also in your lungs,” said Loft, now a professor of environmental medicine at the University of Copenhagen’s department of public health.

Loft has since extensively studied air pollution. He said gas stove combustion releases various harmful pollutants, among them nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and fine particles. 

The World Health Organization released its latest air quality guidelines in September, dropping the annual limit value of NO2 from 40 micrograms per cubic meter to 10. Loft said nitrogen dioxide levels could reach 2,000 micrograms per cubic meter in a kitchen: “You simply cannot achieve that even in the most polluted city in the world outdoors.”

Loft and his colleagues have just completed a study of over 5,000 households in Denmark on various pollutants in the home. It showed an association between the use of gas cookers without a fume hood and reduced measurements of lung function, as well as increased blood markers of inflammation. But it’s not yet clear if that directly translates to disease, he said. Other studies show a more pronounced possible effect on lung function and respiratory symptoms in restaurant workers in kitchens with gas stoves, compared with those working in electric-powered kitchens.

Inside the castle

Scientists are more certain about the established links between inhaling pollutants and worsening frequency and severity of children’s asthma symptoms. 

“There are also waves of emerging evidence which suggests that breathing these gases can lead to the development of respiratory conditions such as asthma, not just exacerbate them,” said Frank Kelly, professor of community health and policy at Imperial College London.

Studying indoor air quality in homes and its effects on the body is no easy feat. For one thing, measuring equipment has to be adapted to be suitable and reliable in a home environment. Then there is the matter of convincing people to let researchers come “inside their castle,” said Kelly.

But, starting in June, they’ll be doing just that. Adapted air sensors will adorn the kitchens, living rooms and bedrooms of a hundred homes in West London for a month in the spring and a month in the winter. The four-year study will examine air-quality measurements in relation to the residents’ behaviors and sources of air pollutants in the home in different seasons. The team will then recommend ways to reduce residents’ exposure — by changing to an electric stove or using a ventilation hood while cooking, for example.

All this information will be linked to the health data of the study participants before and after the changes. “And then in due course — and that’s the big ask, you know — do we see an improvement in symptoms, for example, less inhaler use if it’s an asthmatic child?” said Kelly.

The idea of gas stoves as dangerous may be wrenching. For many Europeans, they are a sentimental part of home life — a point not lost on Russian gas exporter Gazprom, which features a boiling coffee pot on the cooker in a high-profile European advertising campaign run during Champions League football matches. The fuel is also seen by many as a method preferred by both amateur and professional chefs. 

Jeremy Chan, chef-owner of the two-Michelin-starred restaurant Ikoyi in London, said a “screaming hot pan” over a gas burner had a special place in his heart because it’s a reminder of Hong Kong, where he grew up. His restaurant uses gas, but only because the power supply couldn’t handle an induction setup. “For the future, I’m looking to use induction … ​​and charcoal but only minimally, to finish some cooking of meat for flavor.”

Out of the home

Some European governments are bringing forward policies that will push gas out of the home. Denmark and the Netherlands have banned newly built homes from hooking up to the grid, with several others planning to follow suit by 2025. The same is happening in many cities and states across the U.S. But in Eastern Europe, gas stoves remain popular and there are few plans to regulate them. Some countries also raise concerns they might not have enough reliable electricity available to cope with a mass switch of cooking fuels, said Carolina Koronen, climate and energy program manager at the Environmental Coalition on Standards (ECOS), an NGO.

In Brussels too, tackling pollution from gas stoves hasn’t been high on the agenda. The European Commission has proposed a new emissions trading system (ETS) that would make it more expensive to burn gas in the home.

But campaigners want the EU to encourage more people to switch to electric long before the mooted 2026 start of the new ETS. 

The Commission’s approach to greening energy products has largely been driven by “sticking to combustion and making it cleaner,” rather than initiating a switch to clean energy, said Margherita Tolotto, senior policy officer at the NGO European Environmental Bureau. 

Meanwhile, consumers lack reliable information on the health and environmental risks of products on the market. “People’s choices are also guided by the market,” she said. 

Brussels has rules meant to regulate the safety of gas appliances, including gas stoves, stating that appliances have to be constructed in such a way that “they do not cause a concentration of carbon monoxide or other substances harmful to health” that “would be likely to present a danger to the health of persons and domestic animals exposed.”

The bloc also sets out ecodesign and energy efficiency requirements for ovens, hobs and range hoods, including gas stoves.

BSH Hausgeräte, the largest manufacturer of home appliances in Europe, said that its gas cooktops and gas stoves comply with “the most strict emissions standards” in Europe. The manufacturer is also “actively preparing [its] appliances for use of bio-methane … and more green hydrogen.” 

NGOs now hope an ongoing revision of ecodesign and energy-efficiency rules, which has faced several delays, might help flip the switch on gas stoves. 

But the Commission’s preparations for the review paint a mixed picture of its willingness to tackle the issue in the scope of this legislation. The initial legislation provides room for extending its scope to include “fume and odor removal requirements,” and the Commission also acknowledges that there is “likely scope” for addressing pollutant emissions in revisions of ecodesign rules for products. 

Meanwhile, a preparatory draft study on the review commissioned by the EU executive and conducted by its Joint Research Centre — the first step of the legislative review process — does not mention gas stoves’ impacts on human health, although it does address the role of fume extractors in mitigating emissions from stoves. 

The Commission declined to comment on the record for this article. But it is clear that no product regulation is imminent. When researchers from ECOS asked the Commission in December 2020 whether it planned to limit toxic emissions, the Commission said there was not enough data to justify regulation. The Commission also argued that ventilation requirements in EU buildings meant the risks in Europe were not comparable to more established concerns in the U.S.

“I don’t see any reason why that conclusion would be any different for studies in America to Europe,” said Carslaw.  

This article is produced with full editorial independence by POLITICO reporters and editors. Learn more about editorial content presented by outside advertisers.

This article is part of POLITICO Pro

The one-stop-shop solution for policy professionals fusing the depth of POLITICO journalism with the power of technology


Exclusive, breaking scoops and insights


Customized policy intelligence platform


A high-level public affairs network

Click to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

You May Also Like

Europe

BELFAST – Britain is pressing ahead with plans to grant legal immunity to former soldiers and others involved in Northern Ireland killings – but...

Europe

BELFAST – Britain will introduce “a legislative solution” to post-Brexit trade tensions in Northern Ireland, Prime Minister Boris Johnson confirmed Monday during a visit...

Energy

It could take another two weeks before the European Union is able to agree on a plan to sanction Russia’s lucrative oil industry, the...

Europe

The EU economy has taken a beating from the war in Ukraine, forcing the European Commission to issue one of its largest-ever growth downgrades...

Energy

The EU’s climate ambition hangs in the balance in the European Parliament. This week, lawmakers in the environment committee (ENVI) will settle on their...

Europe

PARIS — Carmaker Hopium said Monday it will appoint French Transport Minister Jean-Baptiste Djebbari to its board of directors. Djebbari, a former airline pilot...

Europe

Sweden and Finland’s move to apply to join NATO is a “grave mistake” and they should have “no illusions” that Moscow will simply accept...

Foreign Policy

VIENNA — Iran signaled a willingness to reopen stalled nuclear talks during two days of meetings last week in Tehran — but it hasn’t dropped...