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Are Gas Stoves Hazardous to Your Health?

New research shows that this kitchen appliance poses surprising risks

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Don’t knock your electric stove just yet. It turns out that gas stoves are harming the environment and potentially you more than previously thought.

Just how bad is it? A new study by PSE Healthy Energy, the nonprofit energy and policy research institute, found natural gas piped into millions of homes in California for heating and cooking has high levels of carcinogens and hazardous air pollutants akin to secondhand smoke. Even when these gas stoves are turned off, researchers found they can generate benzene concentrations in homes that are up to seven times the recommended exposure limit in the state. That’s in addition to the benzene leaks that can happen when the stove is turned on. 

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“Stoves leak small amounts of gas all the time, even when they are off. While these leaks are often too small to smell, they can still impact air quality and increase human health risks in our homes,” lead author Eric Lebel, senior scientist at PSE Healthy Energy, said in a statement highlighting the research, which was published in Environmental Science & Technology. “We found that just having a gas stove can create benzene concentrations in the kitchen comparable to secondhand smoke.” 

To come to their conclusion, researchers collected 185 samples of unburned gas from kitchen stoves around California. In nearly every sample they found benzene and other hazardous air pollutants. Of the 10 pollutants identified, six are designated as hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act. 

The study comes as California gets ready to move away from gas appliances and to electric alternatives to fight climate change and protect the health of residents. By 2030, California will end the sale of gas furnaces and water heaters. The state is also phasing out subsidies given to connect new homes to the gas system.

Stanford-led study highlights dangers too

PSE Healthy Energy isn’t alone in warning about the dangerous pollutants leaking from gas stoves. Back in February, a Stanford-led study found that methane leaking from gas-burning stoves, even when they are turned off, has the same negative impact on the environment as the carbon dioxide emitted from around 500,000 gasoline-powered vehicles. If that weren’t bad enough, the study also found that gas-powered stoves can emit high levels of nitrogen oxides, putting residents’ health and air quality at risk.

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“Surprisingly, there are very few measurements of how much natural gas escapes into the air from inside homes and buildings through leaks and incomplete combustion from appliances,” said Lebel, who was also lead author on this study and is a graduate student in Stanford’s School of Earth, Energy and Environmental Sciences. “It’s probably the part of natural gas emissions we understand the least about, and it can have a big impact on both climate and indoor air quality.”

Unburned methane can lead to premature death

People have been cooking with natural gas appliances for decades. Their role in climate change has long been linked to carbon dioxide caused by burning natural gas for fuel. But it is also unburned methane that is harming the environment and potentially your health.

While carbon dioxide is more prevalent in the atmosphere, methane is more lethal to the environment. The Stanford researchers found that methane’s global warming potential is 86 times higher than carbon dioxide’s over 20 years and at least 25 times greater a century after it is released into the air. Methane also increases the concentration of tropospheric ozone in the air, which the researchers estimate can cause 1 million premature deaths by respiratory illness worldwide each year. Even more worrisome, ever since the Industrial Revolution, methane’s concentration has grown at double the rate of carbon dioxide’s.

Most methane leaks occur when stoves are off

To gauge just how much methane gas that stoves are leaking, the scientists measured methane and nitrogen oxides released in 53 homes in California. The researchers studied the stoves during combustion, ignition and when they were shut off. They looked at 18 brands of gas cooktops and stoves ranging in age from three to 30 years. The highest emitters of methane were cooktops that were ignited via a pilot light. The cost or the age of the stove had no bearing on how much methane was emitted. Surprisingly, the researchers discovered that more than three-quarters of methane emissions happened when the stoves were turned off. That implies that most of the problem can be blamed on faulty gas fittings and connections to the stove and in-home gas lines.

The solution to all this leaking methane? According to researchers: an electric stove.

“I don’t want to breathe any extra nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide or formaldehyde,” said study senior author Rob Jackson, the Michelle and Kevin Douglas provostial professor and professor of Earth system science. “Why not reduce the risk entirely? Switching to electric stoves will cut greenhouse gas emissions and indoor air pollution.”

Donna Fuscaldo is a contributing writer and editor focusing on personal finance and health. She has spent over two decades writing and covering news for several national outlets, including The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Investopedia and HerMoney.​

This story was originally published on February 9, 2022. It has been updated to reflect new information.