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Health officials recommend replacing gas stoves with electric ones and other measures to mitigate health risks.

COURTESY PHOTO: OREGON STATE UNIVERSITY - Multnomah County health officials have released a report recommending that people don't use gas stoves due to their impact on indoor air quality and health.Gas stoves may be great for cooking, but Multnomah County health officials say they're a health hazard due to the indoor air pollution they create.

Earlier this month, county health officials presented the board of commissioners with their report on the growing body of research linking gas stoves to adverse health impacts.

They found that gas-burning stoves emit harmful chemicals both during cooking and through equipment leaks that can accumulate indoors and increase risks of respiratory and heart diseases, cancer and other illnesses. There is a particular concern for children and people of color, who already are disproportionately impacted by outdoor air pollution, according to the report released Nov. 10.

The health department recommended people replace gas stoves and other indoor gas-burning appliances with electric alternatives, if possible, pointing out the availability of new federal incentives to help with costs.

The move throws the county into an ongoing fight over whether gas-burning appliances are safe. Environmental groups have been advocating for years for the end of their use, citing studies showing gas stoves' negative impacts on health and their exacerbation of climate change. Several cities around the country have prevented gas burning in new buildings. Gas utilities have been lobbying against such regulations, downplaying the impact of gas stoves on indoor air quality.

"I, like many people, have a gas stove at home, and honestly until recently, I thought nothing of it," said Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury. "The evidence continues to mount that gas stoves may be harming our health, and it really should not have been much of a surprise. We all are hearing over and over again about the harms of fossil fuels."

About half the homes in Multnomah County rely on gas appliances, primarily for heating with furnaces, boilers and wall units, which have systems to vent gas combustion byproducts outside. But the proportion of homes that have gas stoves, which often don't vent emissions outside, is unknown.

While federal regulations for outdoor air pollution have been around for decades, there currently are no federal standards for indoor air pollution, said Multnomah County Health Director Jessica Guernsey.

"Our air indoors can be safer during times of high outdoor pollution events we've seen like wildfires and heat domes, but indoor air pollution has consistently been ranked among the top five environmental risks to public health," Guernsey said.

To make their recommendations, health officials evaluated systemic reviews, which are peer-reviewed summaries of research on a specific topic. They looked also to meta-analyses, which gather data from multiple studies and re-analyze it to determine the strength of evidence and then go through peer-review.

Health officials avoided making claims based on a single study in the report, said Brendon Haggerty, interim program supervisor for Multnomah County's environmental health division.

The report highlights four categories of pollutants that can be released from gas stoves during combustion or from stove leaks.

Harmful substances

The most concerning compound is nitrogen dioxide, Haggerty said. Health officials found strong evidence that nitrogen dioxide exposure from gas stoves impacts health, he said.

According to the report, children in homes with gas stoves are 42% more likely to experience asthma symptoms than those without them, and 24% more likely to be diagnosed with lifetime asthma due to nitrogen dioxide emissions in the home.

Asthma is among the most prevalent chronic diseases in Multnomah County, with one in 10 adult residents reporting a diagnosis. Asthma rates are higher among lower-income adults, county data shows.

People of color, who are more likely to live where outdoor air pollution is higher, also are more likely to use gas stoves as supplemental heat, increasing the potential for exposure to indoor pollutants, according to the report.

Exposure to nitrogen dioxide irritates the eyes, nose and throat and has been linked to other health issues, including systemic inflammation and cancer, the report says.

For the three other pollutants described in the report, the evidence tying their emissions from gas stoves to health impacts wasn't as robust, according to the report.

The open flame of a gas stove produces particulate matter pollution, but particulate matter emissions — such as smoke — occur during the act of cooking regardless of fuel type, the report says. Health impacts from exposure to particulate matter, including cardiovascular and respiratory problems, are well-documented.

While particulate matter levels from gas stove combustion may harm health, "the evidence is undeveloped and considered insufficient," county health officials concluded.

They stated that evidence also was lacking on typical levels of exposure and direct health impacts for gas stove emissions of carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds, according to the report.

Gas stoves can be low-level sources of carbon monoxide, which is known to adversely impact health, the report says. Carbon monoxide poisoning can be fatal within minutes if levels are high enough.

Volatile organic compounds, which can include carcinogens like benzene and formaldehyde, can be emitted through gas stove leaks, according to the report.

County health officials recommend using appliances that don't burn gas, if possible. If non-combustion appliances aren't available, they recommend requiring adequate ventilation outdoors. When replacing gas appliances, health officials recommend using electric appliances.

Although the county isn't offering incentives for residents to switch to electric appliances, households are eligible for such incentives through the federal Inflation Reduction Act starting in 2023. The incentives range from up to $8,000 for an electric heat pump, $1,750 for a heat pump and water heater, and $840 for an electric stove.

Haggerty also pointed out there are other ways to reduce health risks if people aren't able to replace gas appliances. He suggested electric appliances, including a crockpot and portable induction cooktop for cooking or an electric kettle for boiling water. If using a gas stove, people should cook on the back burners, use a hood that vents or open a window, Haggerty recommended.

Push-back

Portland-based natural gas provider NW Natural is pushing back on the county's recommendations and disputing the scientific evidence it cites.

David Roy, spokesperson for the utility, pointed out that no federal agencies, including the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, have determined it necessary to set indoor air quality standards for gas appliances.

He said studies demonstrate that ventilation is key in mitigating cooking-related emissions from the use of gas and electric stoves, which is why kitchen exhausts are required for all new homes in Oregon.

"We completely agree that indoor air quality is an important issue," Roy said. "That's why we regularly communicate with our customers and the public about the importance of ventilation."

The utility offers no-cost annual equipment inspections to ensure gas appliances operate as they should, he said.

Roy noted also that a 2013 study of more than 500,000 children in 47 countries found "no evidence of an association between the use of gas as a cooking fuel and either asthma symptoms or asthma diagnosis."

"We believe the lack of process and unsupported assertions by the county are so egregious that we are considering all of our options," Roy said.

He declined to elaborate on what actions NW Natural was considering in response.

Unlike media and electrification advocates, NW Natural was not notified of the report before it was presented to the board of commissioners, Roy said.

Elected officials speak out

Multnomah County commissioners were generally supportive of the health department's recommendations.

Commissioner Sharon Meieran asked if health officials were able to isolate gas stoves as the primary contributor to health impacts as opposed to other potential compounding factors such as smoking.

Haggerty said studies included in the county's report did their best to isolate the impact of gas stoves.

Multnomah County commissioners Susheela Jayapal and Jessica Vega Pederson said they appreciated the education-first approach, pointing out that the county isn't enacting any policies requiring a transition away from gas appliances at this time.

Kafoury echoed her colleagues' comments saying, "Before we do something drastic, we need to educate people."

There are 77 cities in 10 states working to phase out the use of natural gas, according to the county's report.

In Oregon, the Eugene City Council recently began drafting rules that would ban natural gas lines in new residential buildings. If passed early next year, Eugene would be the first city in Oregon to take such action.

Earlier this year, Washington became the first state in the country to require most newly constructed buildings to have electric heating and water systems. Los Angeles recently banned most gas appliances in new homes.


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