The war on gas stoves hides easier ways to fix indoor air pollution

For years, you’ve been concerned about air pollution — and you should be, too.

I covered research that found dust storms in the desert lead to 22% higher infant mortality and evidence for that Students perform worse in school when exposed to poor air quality. My colleagues wrote that indoor air pollution leads to 4 million deaths per year, Mostly in Africa and Asia, and so on Rollback in US air quality regulations It could contribute to the premature deaths of thousands of Americans.

While we often focus on outdoor air pollution—think smog from fossil-fuel power plants and car traffic—indoor air quality tends to be undercover, given its outsized impact. But over the past month, thanks to the frenzy over gas stoves, indoor air quality has rattled the discourse—and the messy, nuance-free conversations that have resulted have led nowhere toward cleaner air.

Gas stove craze

For those who are not very online, the gas stove battle went like this: First, study I went out to examine the connection between gas stoves and childhood asthma, which the media had jumped on.

Gas stove pollution causes 12.7% of asthma cases in childrenThe Washington Post reported. “It’s like having car exhaust in the house,” one of the co-authors told the paper. Then, citing the news, some activists He called for a government ban on gas stoves.

Post’s story appeared shortly after Suspension By a regulator at the Consumer Product Safety Commission that was widely taken to mean a gas stove ban was on the table. While In fact, some cities have imposed bans on gas stoves in new constructionsaid the Biden administration in response to the outcry They will not seek a nationwide ban.

But speculation about banning gas stoves naturally caused a backlash with many people declaring They never let the government take away their gas stoves. Then there was backlash and counter-backlash, all tied into discussions about what kind of cooking you need a gas stove to have, why gas stoves are so often owned by the wealthy, whether you can use a range hood, whether government bans are an appropriate response to the risks Simple Health, and much more.

Why ignite this debate what ignited? Gas stoves, as the name implies, burn natural gas, which creates climate effects, and Many people suspected – Reasonably, I would argue – the sudden concern about their health effects had more to do with climate than with health.

This is because, as an economist Emily Oster noted in SlateThe original study on asthma that sparked controversy was flawed. It did not find – as many headlines would have it – that pollution from gas stoves was responsible for 12.7 percent of childhood asthma. Instead, I cited pre-existing research that found asthma to be more common in families with gas stoves, and then tried to extrapolate how much asthma might be related to the stove if the previous findings hold true.

But families with gas stoves are different in many ways from families without gas stoves, and in the end, the effect size is very small. The states with the highest rates of gas stove use do not have significantly high rates of asthma, which suggests that how you cook your food may not have a strong connection to future breathing problems.

Gas stoves have more negative effects on health than electric induction stoves. pollutant emission such as nitrogen oxides. But overall, this effect isn’t as big — or at least, not as big as the rant debate.

It’s important to remember that we make trade-offs involving our health every single day. But we need to make those trade-offs in the smartest way possible, and the culture war buzz around gas stoves makes that even more difficult.

Problem Solving: The Easy Way

It is totally worth trying to reduce indoor air pollution. But the cheapest and easiest way to do this, for most Americans, is to turn on the stove extractor fan, or keep the windows open while you’re cooking. Next on the list is Get a large air filter and run it continuously (We use Coway and BlueAir, based on a Wirecutter’s recommendation).

It looks like air filters Improve respiratory healthAnd Improve heart health in the elderlyand significantly reduce pollutants effect size It looks much older than the one associated with replacing a gas stove. (One drawback: Air filters can’t completely filter out the nitrogen oxides that gas stoves produce, which can make replacing your stove worthwhile for parents of asthmatic children.)

For most of us, replacing a stove is an expensive step compared to the benefits of cleaner air. And cost matters: if we want to improve indoor air quality at scale, we must focus on the cheapest and most appropriate interventions. Cooking with the extractor fan on or the windows open costs nothing. Getting a good air purifier up and running in your home is relatively cheap, and it can really make a difference to your health and especially the health of your young children, no matter how you cook your food.

If you want to go ahead and replace your gas stove with an induction cooktop, go for it. But if you’re alarmed that the air in your home might be making your kids sick, go easy—and relax about gas.

Exaggerating is not a good activity

From a climate perspective, while gas stoves can leak methane, it is a tiny fraction of methane emissions – Only 3 percent of family Gaseous emissions, and these household emissions are a small share of total emissions. Trying to scare people about gas stoves for climate means picking a battle that is likely to be politically unpopular, while missing out on easier progress on the issues that matter most.

Some experts have Defend the gas stove approach As creating a “portal” to educate the public about methane in general. But I don’t think that’s the answer when people see implausible scare stories about trading in their gas stoves, accompanied by warnings to replace the gas with something not much better for health or climate, and often more expensive. I don’t think people learn about the dangers of methane in this way – I think they get angry and mistrustful, which makes the task of communicating about the real risks and the real trade-offs that much more difficult.

Basically, the job of the media is to give people an accurate understanding of new scientific findings. It must be contextualized, and it must be presented accurately. In this case, I think Science Communications dropped the ball. intimidating language about it Car exhaust in your home Not suitable for a very uncertain and limited finding like that in the original asthma study.

Warnings about a risk to your children must be accompanied by real, actionable advice – and this advice must respect the limited budgets most families deal with. Spreading questionable information and failing to inform people of reasonable solutions to their problems does not create a “gateway” to educate them about climate change; It alienates, scares, and baffles them—at a real cost to their health, because indoor air quality actually matters!

The whole story feels like part of a sacrificial climate policy, making huge demands from the people – replace your stove, at great cost! Banning such stoves, at greater expense! – Simply Feel Better suited to a big problem like climate change than making small demands. But problems would be much easier to solve, and more likely to actually be solved, if there were cheap and easy solutions. It is better policy and better policy to push for easy solutions rather than hard ones.

Serious sacrifices make some people feel good, and cause division in a way that helps them control discourse. Easy fixes…make the problem go away. But causing the problem to resolve is – at least we hope – what we’re all here for. The goal is not to win in the Twitter arena; The goal is to prevent children from developing respiratory problems.

A version of this story was originally published in the Future Perfect newsletter. Register here to sign up!

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