Gas furnaces emit worrisome levels of benzene, a chemical linked to leukemia and other blood cell cancers, according to a new study from Stanford researchers. Benzene emitted by gas stoves inside homes can reach even higher concentrations than what is typical in second-hand smoke, according to a paper published last week in the journal Environmental Science and Technology.
The research adds ammunition to efforts to phase gas connections out of homes and buildings. There is a growing body of evidence about the risks that gas stoves pose to public health and the environment. However, the fossil fuel industry has pushed hard against policies to switch to clean energy by playing on people’s connection to gas furnaces.
“Seeing the concentration of pollutants rise so quickly in my own home and thinking about what happens day after day after day was a catalyst for change,” said Rob Jackson, Stanford professor and principal investigator of this study, in a press conference in the paper. today. He said the research prompted him to get rid of his gas stove after testing the research’s methods in his own house.
“Seeing the pollutant levels rise so quickly in my own home and thinking about it happening day after day after day was the impetus for change.
Benzene is formed in flames and people are often exposed to it from tobacco smoke, forest fires and exhaust emissions. “I find it very difficult to think of a more potent chemical cause of leukemia than benzene,” hematologist/oncologist Jan Kirsch said at the press conference (Kirsch is not one of the authors of the study but spoke about the health effects of benzene. infection). Benzene happens to be more potent than most other carcinogens at lower exposures, she said. “The idea is obviously not to cause panic. The idea is that there are risks and we want to mitigate them,” Kirsch said.
This study is the first to calculate indoor benzene pollution from gas furnaces, according to its authors. They studied 87 homes in California and Colorado with gas and propane stoves in 2022. In about 30 percent of the kitchens tested, they found that benzene emissions from a single gas burner set on high or a gas stove set at 350 degrees Fahrenheit created higher-than-average concentrations of benzene for passive smoking.
Benzene even flowed from kitchens all the way into bedrooms, the study found. In bedrooms, unhealthy concentrations of benzene remained for hours, even after the stove was turned off. In one house, levels of benzene in bedrooms were comparable to contamination events near schools in California and Colorado that triggered investigations in 2020.
The age or type of stove did not make much of a difference in how much benzene it produced. And while good ventilation plays a role in how much benzene a home contains, the researchers also found that hoods weren’t always effective at containing the pollution. Some hoods circulate air instead of ventilating it outside.
In comparison, induction furnaces did not produce measurable amounts of benzene. Electric ovens can emit much lower amounts of benzene—about 10 to 25 times less than gas and propane ovens—possibly due to any food being burned on red-hot surfaces.
Climate change is a big reason why places like Berkeley, New York City and New York State have moved to phase out gas connections in new homes and buildings. After all, gas stoves run on methane, a greenhouse gas more potent than carbon dioxide that regularly escapes from gas infrastructure and kitchen appliances.
This is also not the first time that gas stoves have been linked to negative health effects. A 2022 study attributed nearly 13 percent of childhood asthma in the United States to the use of gas stoves. And another analysis in 2013 found that kids who lived in homes with gas furnaces were 42 percent more likely to develop asthma symptoms than children in homes without them.
In California, up to 20 percent of childhood asthma could be prevented if people stopped using gas furnaces by 2022, the study found. And yet efforts to phase them out have met with legal challenges. Berkeley, California, became the first city in the United States to ban gas connections in new construction back in 2019. Then in April, a federal court blocked the policy from being enforced.
A bill that would prevent a federal ban on gas stoves passed the House earlier this month, even though no federal legislation proposes such a ban. “Customers like natural gas — in fact, one new residential customer signs up for natural gas service every minute,” American Gas Association President and CEO Karen Harbert said in a statement after the bill was introduced.
The gas industry has spent decades promoting “cooking with gas” campaigns with everything from paid Instagram influencers to this chilling rap video from 1988. “It’s the only way to cook; I was taught that,” it says.
“I grew up in a house with a gas stove; I didn’t think twice about it,” Stanford PhD student and study lead author Yannai Kashtan said at the press conference. “I’m very happy that now I live somewhere with an electric stove.”
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