NORMAL — A recent study that tied the use of gas stoves in homes to rates of childhood asthma — especially in Illinois — inadvertently brought gas stoves to the forefront of the culture wars, adding a new layer to ongoing public discourse on climate change, business interests, and public and environmental health concerns.
Researchers published in the International Journal of Environmental and Public Health last month said their findings were the first to demonstrate how many childhood asthma cases are attributable to gas stoves — and how many cases could, theoretically, be prevented.
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Nationally, about 13% of childhood asthma cases were attributed to gas stove use. In Illinois, that percentage was just over 21%, according to the study.
“There’s probably about 260,000 children with asthma in Illinois, so if this study … says that over 20% of childhood asthma cases could be due to exposure to gas, that’s a significant number of children — 50,000 or so,” said Brian Urbaszewski, the environmental health director of the Chicago-based Respiratory Health Association (RHA). “So, this is a concern.”
But what started as a study aimed at improving children’s health has become a political and cultural talking point in recent weeks, clouding the situation.
Rebecca Leber, a senior reporter for Vox whose work has followed the natural gas industry, said a comment made by the head of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) in an interview is among the main reasons why gas stoves became a hot topic.
Beginning in December, the CPSC, an independent regulatory agency, planned to hold a series of public hearings on the science surrounding gas stoves. In a Jan. 9 interview with Bloomberg, commissioner Richard Trumka Jr. told a reporter gas stoves were a “hidden hazard,” adding that “any product that cannot be made safe can be banned.”
“The agency quickly walked that back, saying there was no ban under consideration,” Leber said. “That really instantly launched this into culture war territory … And we literally saw people comparing this to guns, saying, ‘You can pry (the gas stove) out of my cold, dead hands.’”
What’s new and what’s not
That gas stoves leak pollutants tied to respiratory and heart problems into homes is not new science; that body of research has been ongoing and growing for “at least a decade,” according to the RHA’s Urbaszewski.
The extent to which children could be protected from possibly developing asthma is the new factor.
“I think this is just where things have really crystallized and the stars aligned to realize this is a problem and it’s a health threat, especially for children. So what do we do?” he said. “There’s a range of thought on this, from warning labels being put on gas stoves… to potentially banning the sale stoves in the future. There’s been a lot of talk about people coming into your home and taking your stove — that’s not going to happen.”
Leber said it’s likely the natural gas industry “levered this fight to push back on electrification campaigns,” which had been an issue well before the December asthma study.
“Starting with Berkeley in California, cities have looked at how to electrify new construction and get out of building with gas appliances,” she said. “The gas industry has aggressively pushed back on these climate campaigns.”
A 2021 Mother Jones article by Leber detailed how some gas utilities recruited social media influencers to promote cooking with gas stoves via their platforms; Leber said utilities also have used their lobbying abilities to get preemption laws on the books in red states.
An analysis of federal energy information by S&P Global found 20 states have passed laws that prohibit building gas bans and electrification codes; of those, Illinois is not one, although its neighbors Indiana, Iowa and Missouri have done so.
In fact, the state’s 2021 Climate & Equitable Jobs Act (CEJA) aims to phase out fossil fuels and move to a 100% clean energy grid by 2050, which would position Illinois as a renewable energy leader in the region.
Michael Brown, executive director of the nonprofit Ecology Action Center in Normal, emphasized the passage of CEJA does not include an all-out ban on natural gas in Illinois.
“It is looking at reducing, essentially, all fossil fuel-fired power plants by 2045, but that doesn’t mean that’s banning natural gas,” he said. “The wording in CEJA specifically speaks to natural gas needs to get to zero greenhouse gas emissions by 2045, (but) that’s really speaking more to other technologies, like capturing or sequestration.”
Some municipalities may see more stringent building codes adopted in the coming years that prioritize electrification as a result of CEJA, but Illinois Environmental Council energy policy director Samira Hanessian said that would likely be limited to those with a population of 100,000 or more.
“We’re really talking, maybe, about Aurora or Chicago choosing to adopt those standards,” she said, indicating for now, at least, there’s no serious legislative or lobbying push to get gas stoves out of individual homes.
Why Illinois has so many homes with gas stoves than others — and a higher rate of childhood asthma compared to other states — is not explicitly clear. The December study said 68% of homes in the state are equipped with them, a percentage only matched by California. Experts say it’s likely a combination of geography, availability, and — until lately — its cheaper costs compared to electricity.
In fact, despite electrification and a recognition of the environmental benefits of going green, new home buyers in the central Illinois area served by Keystone Homes opt for gas-powered appliances more often than not.
“We as builders would love to build more green,” said company president Bob Brady, adding, “99% of people want to build green. But 99.9% of people don’t want to pay for it.”
Studies of greenhouse gas emissions in Bloomington-Normal done by the Ecology Action Center with 2008 and 2015 data indicate nearly a quarter of such emissions each year are attributable to natural gas — about 430,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalents.
Brown said a new study that reflects the population and industrial output from places like Rivian and Ferrero may mean that figure is higher now.
“The recent industrial boom I think would skew the proportion a little bit, since the other half essentially includes the industrial sector, but that (along) with residential growth, that probably will show an increase,” he said.
For those who do wish to go electric or pivot from gas-powered appliances, some financial incentives were included with the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act in 2022, including reimbursements for heat pumps and tax credits for home electrification expenses.
IEC’s Hanessian said those incentives are aimed at helping people over an initial cost barrier to electrification, which may prove to be more cost-effective in the long-term as utility bills rise.
“At the end of the day, we’re seeing our gas companies propose rate increases across Illinois while people are severely hurting,” she said. “It really doesn’t help the argument that going electric isn’t going to be cost-effective in the long run. Right now, people need help paying their bills — and they shouldn’t be paying for a service that is harmful to their health and their communities.”
Echoing Hanessian’s desire to tie the gas issue back to environment and health, Urbaszewski said he’d like the focus to be back on helping children stay healthy.
“People are starting to look at, well, do we really need to have fossil fuels in our homes? Or is there a cleaner, better, more responsible way to get what we need done? Those solutions are now much more available than they were 10-20 years ago,” he said. “If we’re looking at things like gas stoves that are in almost every home in Illinois, trying to address that is something that can help bring those (childhood asthma cases) down.”