Gas stoves can leak methane and have raised concerns about indoor air quality and health. A researcher measured emissions in 2021.
By HIROKO TABUCHI
When Multnomah County in Oregon convened a recent public hearing on the health hazards posed by pollution from gas stoves, a toxicologist named Julie Goodman was the first to testify.
Studies linking gas stoves to childhood asthma, which have prompted talk of gas-stove bans in recent weeks and months, were “missing important context,” she said. Levels of pollutants in the kitchen, particularly a well-ventilated one, were negligible, Goodman told people at the November meeting. In fact, she said, the simple act of cooking itself, “baking, frying and sautéing,” also released emissions that had nothing to do with gas.
What Goodman didn’t tell the crowd was that she was paid to testify by a local gas provider. Goodman is a toxicologist who works for Gradient, a consulting firm that provides environmental reviews for corporations. She appeared at the county hearing on behalf of NW Natural, the local utility that is heavily reliant on gas, an affiliation she didn’t state during her testimony.
In recent months, Goodman has also worked with the American Gas Association, the industry’s main lobby group, to help it counter health concerns linked to gas.
In an interview, Goodman said she was transparent about the approach and processes she followed in her research, including disclosing the funding she receives. She said that it had been an oversight not to have mentioned that she had been paid to testify at the Multnomah hearing on behalf of the gas utility, and she said that the opinions she expressed represented her own, not necessarily the utility’s.
She said she wasn’t saying that the epidemiological studies showed that gas cooking doesn’t cause asthma. Still, “when considering the entire body of literature, the available epidemiology evidence is not adequate to support causation with respect to gas stoves and adverse health effects,” she said.
Whether many Americans will continue to cook and warm their homes with gas, or instead switch to electricity, has become one of the most divisive issues in public health as well as the fight over climate action.
A growing body of scientific research has documented indoor air pollution and health problems caused by gas stoves, which emit nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide and fine particulate matter when they are turned on. A December study estimated that gas-burning stoves were associated with 13% of childhood asthma in the United States.
Gas stoves also emit methane, even when the stoves are off. Methane is a powerful greenhouse gas and significant contributor to global warming.
Almost 100 cities and counties have adopted electrification ordinances that ban or discourage gas hookups for new buildings in favor of electric appliances and heat pumps.
The gas industry has fought back. In at least 20 mostly Republican-led states, gas utilities have persuaded lawmakers to pass bills that forbid cities from pursuing prohibitions on gas, calling them too restrictive and costly.
Earlier this month, Richard Trumka Jr., a commissioner of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission, drew a rebuke from the fossil fuel industry and its allies for suggesting his agency might take regulatory action on gas stoves in the face of the mounting research on their hazards.
“You’ll have to pry it from my COLD DEAD HANDS!” Rep. Matt Gaetz, R-Fla., wrote on Twitter alongside a video of a flaming gas stove. Florida’s Republican governor, Ron DeSantis, started selling gas-stove aprons.
Even before the gas stove recently became the appliance to either love or hate, the fight over its future had already been underway. The gas industry had been mobilizing to rebut the concerns, calling on experts at firms like Gradient.
Last year, the American Gas Association, the industry’s main lobbying group, commissioned Goodman to scrutinize a resolution adopted by the American Medical Association saying that cooking with gas stoves increased household air pollution and the risk of childhood asthma. Goodman told the gas-industry group in a letter dated Aug. 11 that the medical association’s concerns were based on “a very limited number of studies that are not representative of the broader body of scientific literature” and that those studies had “significant limitations.”
Soon after, the gas-industry group wrote the medical association complaining of what it called the “incomplete and inadequate scientific basis” of its resolution and urging the group to “closely re-examine” its decision.
The American Medical Association said it stood by its resolution, which had been adopted by physicians and medical students representing more than 190 state and specialty medical societies.
The gas industry group, together with Goodman, has in particular criticized research led by experts at the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank that supports renewable energy, which estimated childhood asthma cases associated with gas cooking, based on previous studies. The peer-reviewed study, published in December, calculated what is known as the population attributable fraction, used to measure the strength of a relationship between a risk factor, like gas-stove use, and a disease, like asthma.
That calculation doesn’t establish causation, however, and the gas industry has used that fact to criticize the research. The study’s authors have stood by the analysis.
Jonathan Levy, who heads the department of environmental health at the Boston University School of Public Health, said the research linking gas stoves to asthma and other health issues, including the latest Rocky Mountain Institute asthma study, was solid.
“There’s a very large and long-standing literature that shows that gas stoves lead to increased levels of indoor nitrogen dioxide, which stands to reason since you’re burning fuel indoors, and nitrogen dioxide comes from fuel combustion,” he said. “Separately, we know that there’s a very large literature linking nitrogen dioxide exposures to respiratory health effects, and to asthma in particular,” he said.
In a statement, Karen Harbert, president of the American Gas Association, said the group’s positions were “grounded in data and good science.” She said the industry would “continue to work with regulators and policymakers to help ensure they have the reliable and objective information they need.”
David Roy, a spokesperson for NW Natural, said Goodman had appeared at the hearing on the utility’s behalf. NW Natural had called upon experts to counter “hastily prepared conclusions and recommendations made without the support of robust process and scientific assessment,” he said.
At Gradient, Goodman co-authored an article, sponsored by the now-defunct American Plastics Council, criticizing dozens of academic articles that had raised concerns over Bisphenol-A, or BPA, a chemical used to make hard plastics such as water and juice bottles. A body of research suggests that BPA and other bisphenols can act as endocrine disrupters that interfere with hormones in the body. The chemicals have been linked to reduced fertility, earlier puberty in boys and behavioral problems in children.
In congressional testimony, Goodman has argued against regulatory standards for mercury and air toxics, and has criticized studies linking air pollution and mortality, frequently identifying herself as an independent scientist, despite Gradient’s work for corporate clients. In articles funded by the American Petroleum Institute, she has also attacked research linking exposure to smog-causing ozone to deaths from respiratory diseases.
Frederick vom Saal, a professor emeritus of biology at the University of Missouri, is among the scientists whose work Goodman has criticized. “There are over 1,000 publications on BPA, but she claimed none of them stand up to their standards,” he said. He said her argument is essentially, “‘You don’t need to worry about anything because there’s so little exposure,’” he said, adding that decades of research has shown that not to be true.
Gradient declined to comment.