Gas stoves are linked to childhood asthma — and advocates want them out of public housing

Originally published by The 19th

A new study bolstering evidence of the connection between childhood asthma and gas stovetops has added urgency to calls for federal housing authorities to remove gas stoves from public housing, where a majority of households are headed by women. 

The study, released last week in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health, highlights one of the major reasons the removal of gas stoves has become a focal point for advocacy groups: Nearly 13 percent of childhood asthma can now be attributed to exposure to gas stovetops. 

Gas stoves can emit carbon monoxide as well as other hazardous air pollutants such as benzene and nitrogen dioxide that have been linked to elevated cancer risk and asthma. 

In October  2022, public health, environmental justice and housing advocacy organizations sent a petition to the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), urging the department to remove gas stoves in favor of induction stoves in public housing to reduce indoor air pollution. 

It was one of several measures recommended that would make public housing less dangerous to residents and more climate resilient.  HUD did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Tuesday.

“The fact that we have good, and now affordable, alternatives to gas stoves — we’re really showing that we could potentially prevent 12.7 percent of childhood asthma in the U.S., and I don’t know anyone who wouldn’t want to do that,” said Brady Seals, manager of the Carbon-Free Buildings program at the Rocky Mountain Institute and co-author of the peer-reviewed study. 

Currently there are no federal regulations for gas stoves. But Seals hopes the new research, which adds to a growing body of evidence linking gas stoves to public health risks, will move policymakers and federal agencies to act. 

The study has already garnered the attention of at least one commissioner on the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) who told Bloomberg News that the “hidden hazard” was on the table as a product that could be banned for safety reasons. 

According to an official statement from CPSC press secretary Patty Davis, no regulatory action has been proposed on gas stoves at this time and doing so would require a lengthy process. 

“Agency staff plans to start gathering data and perspectives from the public on potential hazards associated with gas stoves, and proposed solutions to those hazards later this year,”  the statement reads. “Commission staff also continue to work with voluntary standards organizations to examine gas stove emissions and address potential hazards.”

Focusing on electrification of stovetops and other appliances in public housing would help residents who are most vulnerable and at risk to this type of indoor air pollution. Black and Latinx children suffer from higher rates of asthma than White children due to a host of environmental factors, and they make up a disproportionate percentage of public housing residents. The pollution from gas stoves, particularly in public housing, where ventilation can be minimal and cooking is done in small confined spaces, exacerbates the problem. 

Alarmingly, in a focus group conducted by the Public Health Law Center in Chicago, nearly 100 percent of public housing participants said they have also turned on their gas stoves to stay warm on cold days, which is an added danger for residents. 

There are gender implications to targeting gas stoves in public housing too: 75 percent of public housing households are woman-led, and a third of those have children. An analysis by the World Cooking Index from 2021 showed that women in the United States and Canada cook more frequently than men, meaning their exposure to fumes is higher. Women also suffer from asthma at twice the rate as men, though there is no singular explanation as to why.  

“Almost a million people are in public housing. …. It’s a lot of single mothers, there are a lot of children,” said Danielle Replogle, staff attorney with the Public Health Law Center, who helped write the petition. “We felt that with the connections to childhood asthma, that that would be a good space for us to kind of target and encourage HUD to take this as an opportunity to rethink what decent, safe and sanitary housing can look like in their assisted housing.”

In response to the latest research she said, “I’m just really hopeful that we can count on our government agencies to respond appropriately when new information like this arises.”

The federal Inflation Reduction Act, passed last year, sets aside millions of dollars to aid in the move toward electric appliances in middle- and low-income homes. But without federal action from agencies like HUD, public housing residents aren’t likely to benefit from that money since it’s aimed at homeowners.   

Renters inherently have less control over improving their living conditions over fear of retaliation, said Replogle. And, federal money designated in the IRA is mostly aimed at homeowners, leaving renters out unless their rental agencies or landlords take advantage of incentives being offered like tax credits. 

“That’s why we really want to encourage HUD to have a top-down approach to ensure that the [public housing authorities] themselves are thinking about electrification and have a plan in place to improve the quality of housing and to make housing safe, especially in light of climate change,” said Replogle. 

While they wait on federal action, environmental justice groups are already laying the groundwork. In 2021, WE ACT for Environmental Justice launched a pilot in a public housing complex in the South Bronx in New York City. 

They replaced gas stoves with induction stoves, a type of electric stove, for 10 households and over 10 months monitored air quality in partnership with the Columbia University Mailman School of Public Health and Berkeley Air Monitoring. They also studied air quality in 10 households still using gas stoves. Out of the 20 households that participated in the pilot, 18 were led by women. 

Results will be released later this month but Annie Carforo, the climate justice campaigns coordinator with WE ACT said that they were seeing “significant decreases in households’ nitrogen dioxide when you take out a gas stove.” 

Carforo said they also found enthusiasm over the transition to electric stovetops. “There was practically a universal appreciation and acceptance of induction stoves with a very diverse population that ranges in age, race, background, ethnicity. Every single person that got that induction stove says that they would never go back to their gas stove.” 

She added: “Exposure to this new technology has really shown remarkable promise for transitioning people to a new way of cooking on a new appliance that’s much better for their health and for the environment.”

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