A transition away from gas stoves won’t work if it’s forced

In this photo provided by the Quintana Roo Prosecutors Office, a firefighter examines a gas stove in the rented condo where an Iowa couple and their two children died in Tulum, Mexico. Mexican authorities said on Saturday, March 24, 2018 that autopsies indicate the Iowa couple and their two children died from inhaling toxic gas at the rented condo on Mexico's Caribbean coast, but there was no sign of foul play or suicide.

Illinois is among states with the highest percentage of gas stoves, which do pose health risks. But carrots rather than sticks would do more to encourage people to switch.

America needs a well-constructed public education campaign on how to mitigate the health risks of gas stoves. It also should encourage research and design public policy to make other types of stoves cheaper and better.

Last week, a flurry of outrage followed remarks by Richard Trumka Jr., a commissioner of the Consumer Product Safety Commission, on possible restrictions on gas stoves.

That approach, which was quickly walked back, threatened to make stoves just another facet of the culture wars. It was met with an outburst of anger.

But that doesn’t mean the nation – or Illinois – should just ignore the health and environmental risks of burning gas. Indoor pollution can cause asthma. Burning fossil fuels contributes to climate change. Some cities have placed limits on new gas-fired appliances.

Gas stoves emit carbon monoxide, methane, nitrogen oxides and other toxic pollutants that, without proper mitigation, can render indoor air unsafe. People who reside in smaller living spaces often experience higher concentrations of pollutants from their stoves. Range hoods and exhaust fans can reduce the risk.

Yet too many people think of the hoods and fans as something to use only in hot weather to keep stoves from heating up their homes. A public education campaign could educate people on the health benefits of using those devices whenever they are cooking. Even keeping kitchen doors open or cracking open a window near the stove can help. So can air purifiers. But people should note that not all range hoods vent to the outdoors; some are designed merely to trap grease and circulate the air right back indoors.

Electric and induction stoves, which have improved over the years, are an alternative. But many people view them as substandard options that don’t measure up in terms of cooking properly.

According to a 2020 analysis by the Energy Information Administration, Illinois is among the states with the highest percentage of gas stoves. A study by the Albert Einstein College of Medicine and the University of Sydney published last week by the Rocky Mountain Institute found that in Illinois, 79.1% of households with children cook with gas, whereas only 9.1% of households with children in Florida do.

The fact that electric stoves are prevalent in many states suggests people are happy with them if they are used to them. It’s also worth pointing out that people don’t vent gases from hot water heaters, furnaces or clothes dryers right back into their homes.

To reduce reliance on gas-fired appliances, a model that might be followed is the way Illinois has switched to energy-saving light bulbs, which are subsidized to keep their cost down. People have gotten used to the new bulbs and appreciate lower power bills and not having to change bulbs so often.

The climate law passed by Congress last year allocated $4.5 billion to states to set up rebates for people who replace gas-fired appliances with models that don’t burn fossil fuels. In setting up its own program, Illinois should make sure it is designed to make the biggest possible dent in fossil fuel use, possibly by adding additional funds to the program. That would help make a transition to electric and induction stoves and other appliances more palatable.

As it stands, currently electric stoves in many areas draw their energy from power plants that burn fossil fuels, reducing any environmental benefit. But as more zero-carbon energy comes on line, the benefit of replacing gas-burning appliances will be greater.

Clearly, the world is in a climate crisis that will keep getting worse without strong mitigation. But wise policies are those that create broad public acceptance, not resistance.

Chicago Sun-Times