What's Wrong With Gas?

Doctors in British Columbia are trying to get people to give up natural gas.

Little girl cooking on gas stove
A little girl holding her doll and trying to light a gas stove with matches to cook a biscuit, Washington DC, circa 1932.

 Underwood Archives/Getty Images.

Switch It Up is a campaign by the Canadian Association of Physicians for the Environment (CAPE) in the province of British Columbia, Canada, and Clean Energy BC to promote all-electric living and the removal of natural gas from our homes. British Columbia is blessed with clean hydro-electricity, so the local impact of gas is large: "Natural-gas furnaces, water heaters, clothes dryers, fireplaces, and cooking appliances generate a staggering amount of British Columbia’s climate pollution."

Switch It Up notes that when gas is used in kitchen appliances, it can pose serious health risks for vulnerable children. (Treehugger has previously written about "Piles of Peer-Reviewed Research Show How Bad Cooking With Gas Is for Your Health.") Switch It Up writes:

"Natural-gas kitchen appliances pollute your home with nitrogen dioxide (NO2), an air contaminant. If you cook with gas and have a child with asthma, your stovetop could be exacerbating their attacks. In 2015, following an extensive review of the science, Health Canada issued new indoor NO2 safe exposure limits. These limits remain among the strictest in the world. Health Canada says that most existing Canadian gas ranges do not meet its long-term NO2 exposure standard." 

Writing in The Atlantic, Sabrina Imbler reiterates many of the points we have been making in our coverage of gas stoves:

"On the air-quality front, at least, the evidence against gas stoves is damning. Although cooking food on any stove produces particulate pollutants, burning gas produces nitrogen dioxide, or NO2... Brief exposures to air with high concentrations of NO2 can lead to coughing and wheezing for people with asthma or other respiratory issues, and prolonged exposure to the gas can contribute to the development of those conditions, according to the EPA. Homes with gas stoves can contain approximately 50 to 400 percent higher concentrations of NO2 than homes with electric stoves, often resulting in levels of indoor air pollution that would be illegal outdoors, according to a recent report by the Rocky Mountain Institute, a sustainability think tank."

(Our coverage of the RMI Report here: "Yet Another Study Concludes That Gas Stoves Are Really Bad for Kids' Health.")

Canadian Guideline
Residential Indoor Air Quality Guideline: Nitrogen Dioxide. Government of Canada 

Imbler also references the Canadian Residential Interior Air Quality Guideline for NO2, as there are no interior standards in the USA. The short term exposure, as you might get from cooking, has a recommended limit of 90 parts per billion. Alas, she says "the country set indoor long-term-exposure limits" but they are just guidelines, and as James Glave tweets, "Health Canada basically admits that there is not a gas stove in Canada that can meet it." The problem is that the NO2 levels are a function of various factors including the stove the exhaust hood, the size of the room, and other ventilation. You can't just buy a stove that meets the standard, you have to engineer it all together.

NO2 emissions
NO2 emissions from gas ranges.  Rocky Mountain Institute

Meanwhile, the Rocky Mountain Institute found that just boiling water on a gas range created NO2 emissions that were higher than the Canadian recommendations. That's why Health Canada also recommends that one should "Use a higher fan setting when cooking on a gas stove, ensure that it vents outside, and preferentially use the back burners." Or why the Switch It Up people recommend that you just get rid of it and switch to induction.

What About NO2 and COVID-19?

two women with gas stove
"Really dear, it's time for something more modern.".  H. Armstrong Roberts/ClassicStock/Getty Images

Most discussions about NO2 reference asthma and other respiratory illnesses, but my colleague Mary Jo DiLonardo recently wrote a post, "Urban Air Pollution May Make COVID-19 More Deadly," which studied the correlation between rates of COVID-19 and levels of NO2. Exterior long-term levels of NO2 ranged from 5.8 to 19.3 ppb.

 "A 4.6 parts per billion (ppb) increase of NO2 in the air was associated with an 11.3% increase in COVID-19 case fatality and a 16.2% increase in COVID-19 mortality rate. Researchers found that a 4.6 ppb reduction in long-term exposure to NO2 would have prevented 14,672 deaths in those who tested positive for the coronavirus."

The study did not look at indoor air quality but did look at outdoor NO2 levels that were significantly lower than those found inside where people cook with gas stoves. They concluded:

"Long-term exposure to NO2, which largely arises from urban combustion sources such as traffic, may enhance susceptibility to severe COVID-19 outcomes, independent of long-term PM2.5 and O3 exposure. The results support targeted public health actions to protect residents from COVID-19 in heavily polluted regions with historically high NO2 levels."

I do not think it is a stretch to suggest that long-term exposure to NO2 arising from interior combustion sources might also "enhance susceptibility to severe COVID-19 outcomes." Another good reason to get rid of the gas and electrify everything.