Was there ever a cleverer sleight of hand than the labelling of the fossil fuel methane as ‘natural gas’? Oil and coal are also natural, but have you ever heard of ‘natural coal’ as a marketing slogan? Mercifully not, yet the global gas industry continues to operate with relative impunity. In the case of gas, this extends right into our homes, where many of us have hobs that burn ‘clean’ fossil gas which has been skilfully sold as harmless. This is absolutely not the case, as I explored in this piece for the Irish Examiner in May.
AS PART OF our journey to a lower-carbon household, we replaced our gas boiler with a heat pump some months ago. Along with an electric car, this means our transport and home heating, two of the major fossil fuel users, are now fully electrified.
There is, however, one remaining piece of the puzzle. Our cooker is a combination of electric oven with a gas hob, hence we have yet to fully disconnect from the gas network. So, in common with hundreds of thousands of other Irish households, we continue to cook using gas.
From a health point of view, burning an open flame indoors is always problematic, but the one that is most commonly done actually attracts the least scrutiny — and that is the gas cooker.
Though cleverly branded by the industry as ‘natural gas’, the fact remains that this is a fossil fuel that produces emissions that are damaging to the global climate. Compelling evidence is emerging that the gas cooker in your kitchen is also a potent and potentially dangerous source of indoor air pollution.
A study published last December found that one in eight cases of childhood asthma in the United Stated are linked to gas cooking. It turns out that the “clean” blue flame on your cooker hob is in fact nothing of the sort.
When burned, gas emits a toxic cocktail of compounds, including nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide, collectively described as NOx. Other emissions from gas cooking include low doses of carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, benzene, xylene, and toluene. These chemicals have been linked to a range of respiratory issues, as well as some cancers.
While few of us would tolerate allowing anyone smoking in our homes, the health effect of having a gas stove is calculated to be similar to breathing in secondhand smoke indoors.
Even when switched off, a typical gas cooker leaks a small amount of methane into the air. A US study published last year calculated that the amount of methane leaked from all of America’s gas cookers each year was equivalent to the carbon dioxide pollution from half a million cars.
The same study found that NOx emissions when a gas cooker is in use can exceed US federal safety standards for outdoor pollution within just a few minutes. One of the researchers, Seth Shonkoff of the University of California at Berkeley described gas cookers as “stationary air pollution machines inside people’s homes”.
Across the US, cities and states are gearing up for either partial or total bans on new gas infrastructure, with New York city drafting legislation that would prohibit gas cookers from being used in new buildings, including new family homes and commercial properties. California and Washington state have updated their building codes to similar effect.
European research published in January estimated that around 700,000 cases of childhood asthma in the last year could be attributed to homes that cook using gas. In total, around 100 million households in the EU use gas for cooking.
The organisations behind the EU research are urging the total phasing out of gas cookers in the EU.
“Gas cooking appliances need health warning labels like cigarette packets,” said Christine Egan, CEO of Clasp, an NGO lobbying for improvements to appliances and equipment to boost human health and reduce climate impacts.
If you are currently using a gas cooker, the best way of reducing the health risks is to always use your ventilated hood when cooking, and when possible, leave a window open to improve ventilation in your kitchen when preparing food.
Gas cookers are popular because they provide instant heat and are easier to control than traditional electric hobs, which can be sluggish to respond. However, induction stoves are becoming increasingly popular. These run electricity through a coil that creates a magnetic field.
One major advantage is that the surface of the stove remains cool, and induction stoves heat instantly and are extremely efficient. In tests, an induction stove was able to bring a pot of water to the boil in half the time taken by a gas flame.
Induction hobs are not cheap, costing typically 50% more than a standard electric or gas hob, and they also require special pots and pans. However, on the positive side, induction hobs use significantly less electricity, and with today’s high energy prices, this will make a useful dent in the monthly household electricity bill, so helping to offset the higher purchase price.
Despite its improved efficiency, cooking with an induction hob is still a little more expensive than with gas, but in the scheme of things, this is surely a small price to pay for a cooker that doesn’t pollute the air in your home, worsen climate change or expose you and your children to increased risk of respiratory disease.