When I joined the Public Health Law Center to investigate the health harms attributable to indoor fossil fuel combustion and create federal policies for beneficial electrification, it never occurred to me that my work might be discussed by the likes of Stephen Colbert. But, unless the past month has been a fever dream, gas stoves have stepped into the limelight.

The Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), a generally uncontroversial federal agency that investigates harmful products and creates policies to protect people, recently announced plans to assess dangers associated with gas stoves. Health advocates had been calling for CPSC review of gas stoves and ranges for months following a slew of concerning scientific reports linking gas stoves to respiratory ailments, especially among vulnerable populations like children, the elderly, and people with preexisting conditions. Without harping on the details, the peer-reviewed scientific evidence on the topic reflects two incontrovertible truths: (1) gas stoves emit hazardous pollutants in unsafe quantities and (2) gas stove pollution is currently contributing to significant health harms among U.S. residents.

When Congress created the CPSC, they tasked the Commission with protecting us from unreasonable risks, evaluating the comparative safety of products, passing product safety standards, and promoting research into product related deaths, illnesses, and injuries. With reports indicating that almost 13% of childhood asthma is attributable to gas stove pollution, gas stoves are an obvious choice for the Commission’s attention. So, when Commissioner Richard Trumka explained that the CPSC was approaching its gas stove investigation with a willingness to use the full extent of its regulatory power, he probably didn’t anticipate an imminent media uproar. But his expectations proved an ill-predictor of the no-holds-barred match that is the U.S. news cycle.

In his characteristic satire, Colbert poked fun of the Biden Administration for even considering a ban on gas stoves. However, many commentators siding with Colbert’s preference for perfectly pan-seared scallops over healthy air quality are not being facetious. In an overreaction of hilarious proportions, U.S. Representative Ronny Jackson from Texas’ 13th District—a physician—tweeted that the government could come and pry his gas stove from his “cold dead hands.” Senator Ted Cruz also weighed in by posting a flag featuring a stylized gas stove and the slogan “Come and Take It.” Charming.

So, why is everyone up in arms over something as banal as stoves? I’ll give you a hint: it has nothing to do with their desire for delicious homecooked meals.

These elected officials are defending gas stoves because the gas industry pays their campaign bills.  According to OpenSecrets, Ronny Jackson is among the top 20 U.S. Representatives for fossil fuel industry contributions. Ted Cruz graces the corresponding list for the U.S. Senate, and his last available financial disclosure showed significant personal assets from investments in companies like BlackRock, Chevron, and Exxon.

But, cooking gas makes up a small fraction of the fossil fuel industry’s business. So why is the industry so heated about gas stoves? Even if Congress were to pass a law outlawing gas stoves (that’s what would need to happen for the government to enact a “ban” in the common sense of that word—the CPSC does not have the power to seize goods from your home), gas could still be used to heat air and water inside buildings across the country. So, what’s the big deal?

Well, the big deal is that policies that curb gas stove use are targeting one of the last inroads the industry has to the American psyche. It’s hard to get people riled up about furnaces and water heaters because we only interact with them if something is wrong. Unless your furnace breaks or needs replacing, you probably don’t spare it a thought. Whether it’s gas or electric doesn’t matter to the average person, so long as it’s working. But stoves… stoves are a whole other story. Plenty of people interact with their stoves on a daily basis, often multiple times a day. You know which burner sometimes needs an extra light, where to turn the dial for golden brown pancakes, and how long it takes to boil water for tea. Your stove cooks the food you feed to your loved ones. In some households, stoves help keep your family warm through winter. It’s an intimate relationship. And the gas industry knows that.

In fact, through a decades-long propaganda campaign, the fossil fuel industry crept into our heads and tied “Cookin’ with Gas” to those warm and fuzzy feelings of a home-cooked meal. Advertisements targeted women trying to cope with sexist and imbalanced home labor expectations (hardly an original tactic, but I digress). Gas-backed slogans disparaged electric alternatives to such an extent that outdated critiques survive in the court of public opinion to this day.  New electric stoves are far more responsive than older models and visually indicate when they are hot just like gas stoves do. The rise of induction technology means you can now buy a super-safe, hyper-efficient electric stove that allows you to cook with temperature precision down to the degree. Yet, the outcry in response to a CPSC investigation shows that many consumers have developed such a loyalty to cooking with gas that they would risk the health of everyone they live with rather than consider going electric.

To be clear, there’s no shame in having been a gas stove fan. The outdated electric coil stove in my college dorm nudged me to look for gas in my post-grad rental and—before I got so embroiled in indoor air quality science—I joined my best friend in lamenting the electric stove in her newly purchased home. I only switched sides when I learned the whole story, including the industry’s most recent attempts to entice younger buyers by paying social media influencers to promote gas. But even if my personal preference hadn’t changed, I would still be in favor of CPSC intervention to ensure gas stoves are equipped with automatic range hoods that vent outside.

Unhealthy indoor air quality is problematic no matter who you are, but asthma and other respiratory illnesses associated with air pollution disproportionately impact Black, Indigenous, and Puerto Rican communities. Even after controlling for socioeconomic factors like neighborhood income, Black and Hispanic children are more likely to develop asthma. In 2016, almost 18% of children identifying as American Indian/Alaskan Native reported having asthma compared to just 7% of non-Hispanic white children. A 2020 report found that children of Puerto Rican descent suffer from asthma at around three times the rate of white children. Black people are hospitalized for asthma far more frequently than white people and, horrifyingly, both Black and Puerto Rican people are around three times more likely than white people to die from an asthma-related incident. Centuries of racist policies have deprived many residents of the financial resources necessary to choose their own stoves, so we need regulatory intervention to ensure landlords are furnishing homes with non-toxic alternatives to gas-powered cooking.

When I was working on a citizen petition asking the Department of Health and Urban Development to make public housing safer and more resilient to climate change, I visited a federally-assisted affordable housing community in Chicago’s South Side. The people I met there spoke openly about the daily deluge of pollution from a host of industrial sources that surround the neighborhood. Grandmothers with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease reported sheltering indoors with the windows closed to mitigate irritation caused by clouds of foul-smelling pollution that regularly wafted over the community. Environmental justice organizers within the community described decades of disinvestment that had left residents in dilapidated homes with broken and outdated appliances and temperature control systems. Nearly every person I spoke with reported using gas-fired stoves and ovens, not only for cooking, but also as a heat source to stay warm throughout the winter. Prior to our discussion, none of them was aware that running their ovens for supplemental heat was filling their homes with harmful air pollution. Without government mandated product safety measures, renters and low-income homeowners have little choice but to use the appliances they have—and suffer the consequences.

So, before anyone else publicly declares their undying devotion to a kitchen appliance or starts shouting for the abolition of an agency that fulfills a basic government function, let’s all take a moment to consider where our love for gas stoves came from, who is profiting from that love, and who is suffering from it.

Dani Replogle, Staff Attorney
February 7, 2023