Gas stoves continue to be a favorite with chefs and keen amateur cooks, but cooking with gas isn’t all sunshine and roses. For one, gas cooking affects indoor air quality more than you might think.
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If you’re ready to replace your old stove, you might be considering breaking up with those burners. Conversely, if your electric stove is falling apart, you might be wondering if gas is actually more cost-effective. Here are the pros and cons of gas cooking, with a more in-depth look at air quality and gas stoves.
- Easy control of cooking temperatures
- Ability to char foods in a way that electric ranges can’t
- Generally cooks faster
- Often more energy-efficient than electric, depending on electric source
- Gas cooking can have negative impacts on indoor air quality
- Requires gas pipelines in your house and on your property
- Price of gas may cost more in the future
- High environmental cost for infrastructure
The benefits of gas stoves
Perhaps the biggest draw of gas stoves is the ease with which you can control cooking temperatures. Oh, and the instant heat once that flame is lit. Gas also lets you char foods in a way you just can’t with an electric or induction stove.
Natural gas is also surprisingly energy efficient. With a gas stove, you can cook food quickly using less energy than you would with an electric stove. However, you’ll want to check the British Thermal Unit (BTU) output of your gas stove. In general, the lower the BTU, the more energy-efficient the stove.
Another surprising thing about natural gas is that, despite being a fossil fuel, it may be more environmentally friendly than electricity in some places in the U.S. This is because much of the electrical grid in the U.S. is powered by coal-burning power plants. See my piece on coal powered Teslas for more.
Thankfully, coal-burning power stations are being phased out, with more renewables coming online and grids becoming more efficient. For now, though, it’s likely that if you live in the U.S., your electricity actually comes from burning fossil fuels. Cooking your food directly with natural gas cuts out the middleman (the power plant), making it more energy-efficient overall.
Of course, there is a chance that your electricity already comes from renewables. When deciding for or against a gas stove, check with your energy provider to see if your home really runs on coal. Then, if necessary, ask around to see if there is an alternative energy company you can switch to for electricity.
The downsides of cooking with gas
As well as the pros, there are also some rather significant cons to cooking with natural gas. The main downside is that gas cookers seriously affect indoor air quality. More on that in a moment.
Other main downsides to cooking with gas include the risks of gas pipelines in your house and on your property. You have to be very careful not to disrupt these any time you do any landscaping. Gas pipelines can also rupture in areas prone to earthquakes or landslides. The presence of natural gas connections in your home may also affect the availability and cost of home insurance.
Natural gas may also cost a lot more in the future, despite being relatively cheap right now. On balance, the U.S. currently exports more natural gas than it imports. In 2020, about 98% of U.S. total annual natural gas imports were from Canada. Most of this comes through gas pipelines (as gas), with a tiny amount coming by a truck as compressed natural gas (CNG). Only 2% of total U.S. natural gas imports are liquefied natural gas (LNG), with 80% from Trinidad and Tobago.
Finally, natural gas infrastructure leaks methane from start to finish. Methane is a much stronger greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide. As such, cutting down on natural gas for home cooking directly benefits the fight against global warming and climate change.
Given the environmental cost and risk of natural gas pipelines and extraction, and the relative safety of renewables, gas availability and cost may change significantly in the next few decades.
Gas stoves and indoor air quality
Perhaps the biggest downside of gas cooking is its negative impact on indoor air quality. This is exacerbated if, like most, you don’t have an effective exhaust hood over your stove.
Several factors affect how gas stoves impact your indoor air quality. These include household airflow and outdoor levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and carbon monoxide (CO).
Gas stoves emit both NO2 and CO, as well as formaldehyde (HCHO). All of these gases adversely affect health, with the potential to cause serious problems for anyone with asthma, emphysema, or any respiratory illness or health issue.
Homes with gas stoves have 50-400% higher concentrations of NO2 compared to homes with electric stoves. This is according to a report by the Rocky Mountain Institute. Even more conservative calculations, courtesy of the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University, show that gas stoves add 25–33% to indoor NO2 concentrations during summer. In winter, gas stoves add 35–39% more NO2, because homes are typically less well ventilated.
The same research found that gas stoves increased carbon monoxide (CO) by 30% in summer and 21% in winter. (CO concentrations are lower outdoors in summer.) As for formaldehyde, gas stoves added relatively little to indoor air; the biggest contributions come from furniture and building materials.
Household exposure to toxic gases can quickly reach and exceed federal and California state health-based standards when you don’t have (and use!) a range hood to vent cooking fumes. During a typical winter week, 1.7 and 12 million Californians could be exposed to levels of carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, respectively, that exceed indoor air quality standards if cooking with gas without a range hood.
Gas stoves in the family home
In the same study as above, researchers found that small children, aged 0-5, were most at risk of adverse health effects of gas cooking. Unlike older children, younger kids are more likely to be close to a parent or caregiver cooking a meal.
Research suggests that children living in a home with a gas stove have about a 20% increased risk of developing a respiratory illness. One meta-analysis found that for every 15 ppb rise in NO2, a child’s risk of wheeze rose 15%.
Known potential health effects in children of exposure to indoor air pollutants from gas cooking include:
- Increased risk of asthma (lifetime and current)
- Learning deficits (especially in the first four years of life, and among genetically susceptible children)
- Cardiovascular problems
- Increased susceptibility to lung infections
- Increase susceptibility to allergens
- Changed lung function
- Aggravated respiratory symptoms (wheeze, difficulty breathing, cough, chest tightness).
What does this increased risk look like in practice though? Well, without proper ventilation, even baking a batch of muffins and using one burner on a gas stove can increase NO2 levels to twice the World Health Organization (WHO) guidelines for indoor air safety (106 ppb; 90 ppb in Canada; the EPA has no indoor air pollutant standards). The effects spread far beyond the kitchen, too. Other rooms of the house, including the nursery and kids’ bedrooms, can also be affected.
Indoor air quality regulations and gas stoves
Somewhat shockingly, given the evidence, gas stoves are the only major indoor gas appliance not required to be vented outdoors. If you have a gas furnace, dryer, or water heater, you have to vent these outside to satisfy regulations. This is because regulators have long acknowledged the danger they pose to indoor air quality and health.
This inequity in regulations isn’t because gas stoves are any safe than other gas appliances, however. Your gas stove burns just as much gas as a gas dryer, for instance. The cynic in me says that this lack of regulation is a product of intense lobbying by the natural gas industry, and marketing that uses social media influencers #CookingWithGas to play on our emotional attachment to gas stoves, which we just don’t have to, say, our gas furnace.
In the U.S. there are no current federal venting requirements for gas stoves in new buildings. Many states also lack regulations, though some are introducing regulations to support safe air quality.
For example, in 2021, California developed new standards that, if enacted, will require more ventilation for gas stoves (versus electric) from 2023 onwards. The standards also call for more robust ventilation in smaller apartments, given that indoor air pollutants reach higher levels faster in small spaces. There are also plans afoot for federal government incentives to encourage people to switch from residential gas to all-electric, despite much opposition from the natural gas industry.
In 2015 in Canada, the government set indoor long-term exposure limits to NO2 at 11 parts per billion. This is one of the strictest limits in the world. There’s also a big push in my province (British Columbia) to encourage people to switch gas appliances for electric. This includes excellent rebates for heat pumps, hot water tanks as well as electric stoves.
The inequity of indoor air pollution
Sadly, and unsurprisingly, gas stove pollution is most likely to affect lower-income communities. There are several reasons for this, including poorer ventilation and less control over appliances in rental accommodation.
Many lower-income households also have higher indoor air pollution because people have to use their gas stove to heat the home. One 2008 survey found that 14% of 150 asthmatic children living in Baltimore lived in homes heated by a gas stove.
If you are a property owner renting out an apartment or home, consider supporting the health of your tenants by switching gas appliances for electric or induction. And if you’re building a new home from scratch, skip the expensive ventilation infrastructure needed for gas appliances and install all-electric from the start.
How to improve indoor air quality while cooking with gas
The easiest way to safeguard indoor air quality is to switch your gas stove for an energy-efficient induction range. Barring that, properly install and use an effective range hood. Modern ventilation systems can quietly and quickly get rid of unwanted fumes and humidity while retaining heat. For the most effective ventilation, use the back burners with the range hood fan on and windows and doors open where possible.
When we moved into our current home, we realized that our range hood wasn’t actually vented outside. All it did was recirculate air! We prioritized installing ductwork to properly vent cooking fumes. This helps to get rid of air pollutants and helps with moisture management in our older home.
You can also make a big difference to indoor air quality by using safe, non-toxic cookware that is free of PTFE, PFOA, and PFOS. Choose cooking oils with an appropriate smoking point to further reduce indoor air pollution and try to avoid using the self-cleaning mode of ovens too. Or, if you do use this mode, use it infrequently when vulnerable family members (including pets) are out and the home is very well ventilated. Cleaning your oven with some elbow grease will also save energy.
Finally, if you’re looking to replace a stove and want to stick with gas, choose a newer model with electric ignition. This type of gas stove uses up to 40% less gas than older models that have a pilot light that burns all day and night. Thankfully, pilot lights were largely phased out after 1990, so unless you’re importing a model from outside the U.S. (and Europe), any new gas stove should have electric ignition.