Last month, to nearly everyone’s surprise, the subject of gas stoves—and whether the government might soon ban them—dominated a few news cycles. It all began when a member of the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) said that his agency was looking into the health hazards of using gas stoves and that “any option is on the table.” A conservative backlash ensued, with Fox News hosts railing against government plots to outlaw the gas stove and a MAGA congressman tweeting that the White House could “pry it from my cold dead hands.” Then came the meta discourse: pundits largely ignored the health concerns, instead scolding left and right alike for pulling the innocent gas stove into the fray of the culture wars. The Washington Post profiled the commissioner who set the whole train in motion. Both the Biden administration and the CPSC had to issue weary clarifications: no one in the government is planning to ban gas stoves.
Amid all this noise, however, is a strong signal. Thanks to media coverage, many more people now know that gas stoves have long been associated with asthma and other ailments, especially in children. For public health advocates, there’s no such thing as bad publicity. About a third of the US population primarily cooks with gas, and it’s safe to say that most of them have never given a moment’s thought to the possibility that they may be raising their kids’ risk of contracting asthma while frying eggs for them.
The CPSC sets safety standards for consumer products and issues recalls for everything from defective strollers to blinds with cords that could get wrapped around a child’s neck. This spring the agency will begin soliciting public comments and expert input on whether gas stoves merit regulation. The outcome of this years-long process probably won’t be a ban—government agents will not be ripping the Wolf range out of your kitchen—but new standards for manufacturers: think mandatory ventilation or information about emissions levels on the packaging of new appliances. Gas stoves may soon come with a warning label similar to those on cigarette cartons.
This could sound the death knell for the gas distribution utilities all the same. The American Gas Association (AGA) and other industry groups have pushed back aggressively on the research that triggered the uproar, criticizing the methods of a new peer-reviewed study that found that nearly 13 percent of childhood asthma in the United States was attributable to gas stoves—comparable to the asthma risk from chronic exposure to secondhand cigarette smoke.
The study drew on decades of evidence. That exposure to nitrogen dioxide exacerbates asthma (especially in children) and causes other respiratory diseases is not a new or controversial finding. In recognition of these risks, since the Clean Air Act the gas has been regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency in outdoor air. Also not in dispute: cooking with gas produces air pollution levels indoors that would be illegal if regulators measured them outside. Homes with gas stoves can have concentrations of nitrogen dioxide as much as 400 percent higher than those with electric stoves.
It all looks like something the Consumer Product Safety Commission might want to investigate. In fact, that was what the EPA’s scientific advisors suggested back in 1986. In the nearly four decades since, the CPSC hasn’t taken any action.
In 2020, while reporting for Undark Magazine on the overlooked health risks of gas appliances, I asked the CPSC if it had any plans to examine the intervening decades’ research on nitrogen dioxide and other pollutants and update its guidance for consumers. A spokesperson told me that the agency was looking into “how this new information could be used to potentially update recommendations for indoor exposure levels and the development of new or update of existing voluntary standards.” The AGA, for its part, told me then that the fact that the CPSC didn’t regulate gas appliances or label them as “a health hazard in their technical or public information literature, guidance, or requirements” was proof that there was no risk—no smoke, no fire.
Yet the main reason it’s taken more than thirty-seven years for the CPSC or any other regulatory agency to act is that the industry has long fought behind the scenes to prevent or forestall any kind of regulation, voluntary or otherwise, that might give consumers a whiff of danger. In almost all states and cities, building codes require gas furnaces and water heaters to be vented outside. But decades of effective lobbying by the gas industry, both in state capitals and in Washington, combined with regulatory blind spots (who should be in charge—the CPSC, the EPA, or states?) have prevented such requirements for stoves. (The industry has even worked to veto tighter building codes that would boost energy efficiency and make it easier for homeowners to transition to electric appliances, manipulating decision-making by the International Code Council, on whose model energy codes most states’ building codes are based.) Meanwhile the AGA and other industry voices have basically accused researchers of sloppy work—of downplaying confounding variables, like exposure to mold or other asthma triggers, and ignoring the fact that cooking itself, whether with electricity or gas, produces particulate pollution.
If this twin effort to strong-arm decision-makers and sow public doubt despite powerful evidence sounds familiar, it should. These tactics are borrowed straight from Big Tobacco’s public relations playbook. (In some cases the gas lobby has even employed the same PR firms.) Tobacco companies fought for decades to keep warning labels off cigarettes. We all know how that story turned out. When was the last time you saw someone smoking in a restaurant?
To understand why the industry invests so heavily to preserve the gas stove’s benign image, you need to follow the pipe that leads out of your kitchen into the street, to the network of larger pipes owned and operated by your gas distribution utility. It’s this line—the gas connection—that matters most. Gas stoves only account for a small fraction of the methane (natural gas) purchased for residential or commercial use in the US, relative to water heating and space heating. But unlike those other appliances, stoves have an emotional valence for many people. It’s the only gas appliance they interact with daily. For gas utilities, it’s a life preserver: as long as people cling to their stoves, they will keep their gas line intact.
Unless they can reinvent themselves for the low-carbon, electrify-everything era, the future for gas utilities looks grim. Under the combined pressure of decarbonization mandates, rising concerns about methane leaking from the gas supply chain, high natural gas prices, and increasing competition from more efficient and appealing electric alternatives, their customer base is only likely to keep shrinking. Climate activists are calling on regulators to plan ahead and start “pruning the gas tree”: paring back the existing system of aging, leak-prone gas distribution pipes in chunks, and transitioning entire streets or neighborhoods to electricity. Meanwhile electric heat pumps are coming for gas furnaces and water heaters. They save building owners energy and money. These trends are picking up steam. In California last fall, regulators ruled that new gas distribution lines can no longer be subsidized. They also committed to phasing out the sale of gas furnaces and water heaters by 2030.
Now the CPSC is finally threatening to do its job, just as an alternative technology has emerged that is superior in every way. Electric-powered induction stoves are faster, more precise, easier to use and clean, and have the clear benefit of not spewing combustion products in your face. They are still more expensive, but as more people buy them, economies of scale will drive down their purchase price and installation cost. The Inflation Reduction Act includes tax rebates that cover up to $840 of the cost of buying one and programs encouraging contractors to market and install them. In the long run, if a technology offers a better experience, there’s no public relations strategy that can overcome it. It’s enough to give any gas utility executive heartburn.
Still, the gas industry could keep these threats at bay for a while. Despite recent spikes in natural gas prices, it has the powerful forces of inertia and familiarity behind it. Appliances have long lifespans. Even when they break, making the switch to all-electric has what contractors call a high PITA (“pain in the ass”) factor. Gas is what many HVAC installers, appliance salespeople, and homeowners know. It is effectively subsidized in many places. In some states utilities have pushed for approval to charge homeowners an onerous fee to shut off their gas connection. Few enough people have experience with induction stoves that it could take a while before the transition really takes off.
There will always be cranks loudly complaining about the government telling you what you can or can’t buy or do in your own home, carrying water for the think tank libertarians who want to eradicate the entire regulatory state. But the “nanny state” won’t be what kills gas stoves: good old-fashioned demand destruction will do the job. After all, most people don’t follow any of this that closely. They are too busy living, working, parenting, and cooking. What might change their calculus is the knowledge that they are slowly poisoning their kids every time they fire up the range. (And even when they aren’t: recent research confirms that some gas stoves leak methane and other chemicals such as benzene, a known carcinogen, into the living area even when not in use.) Plenty of people have thrown out their Teflon pans and BPA-infused plastic bottles and scoured their pantries and toy chests for anything that might throw off their children’s endocrine systems. If they go to a big-box store to shop for a gas stove and see a bright red warning label on it, they might think twice.
These energy and technology transitions can only be delayed, not prevented. Eventually, lighting methane on fire inside your house to make tea will seem as antiquated and ill-advised as burning chunks of coal in your basement. The urgent question—for the climate, and for millions of pairs of lungs—is how fast we get to that point.