November 10, 2022
A Multnomah County Health Department report suggests that gas stoves release dangerous air pollutants, and children living in homes with such appliances are 42% more likely to experience asthma symptoms. Citing these health concerns, the report recommends that combustion appliances such as gas stoves be protected from public health.
On Thursday, November 10, the Board of County Commissioners received an information session of Multnomah County Health Department experts on the report’s findings. The report highlighted that gas stoves emit a variety of pollutants, including nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds. The report also highlighted the environmental justice implications these pollutants have, noting that Black, Native, Latinx, and other people of color face greater and compounded risk from these indoor emissions because they also experience disproportionate exposure to outdoor air pollution .
Chair Deborah Kafoury requested the report on natural gas appliances, which is in line with the Council’s commitment to reducing the cumulative burden of air pollution as part of the Clean Air Resolution passed earlier this year in February.
The primary focus of the report is to inform and educate the community about the extent to which gas appliances, such as gas stoves, contribute to indoor air quality pollution and health hazards, said Brendon Haggerty, the interim program supervisor for Multnomah County Environmental Health.
“I believe the briefing we will have this morning on this report will provide us with information that is highly relevant to our work as the Board of Health,” said Chairman Kafoury.
“Our job as the Board of Health is to improve public health and that, of course, means helping people make healthier choices and making those choices more understandable and more accessible.”
The report explains how gas stoves are a health risk in homes. Gas stoves are a source of combustion (burning) pollution. Ignition and extinguishing release a range of hazardous air pollutants, including concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) which is up to 50% to 400% higher than homes with electric stoves, according to research from the US Environmental Protection Agency.
“Gas stoves are a particular concern because they are a proximate source of indoor air pollution,” Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey said of concerns about gas stoves in homes.
Using a gas stove indoors exposes individuals in the home to pollutants for longer periods of time, as homes and buildings can trap pollutants. Guernsey shared that indoor pollution is ranked among the top five environmental risks to public health, citing that individuals will spend 90% of their lives indoors.
Even when stoves are turned off, Haggerty said, gas stoves can leak and still contribute indoor pollution.
Children are at greater risk of being sensitive to indoor pollution because of their increased breathing rates, smaller bodies and higher lung-to-body ratios, Haggerty shared. Aging adults are also at increased risk due to the likelihood of underlying conditions, while anyone with respiratory or heart conditions is also more likely to be affected by indoor air pollution.
In Multnomah County, 1 in 10 adults report an asthma diagnosis, making it one of the most common chronic diseases in the country.
The report also details the disproportionate harms of indoor air pollution, noting that low-income and black, indigenous and people of color are disproportionately burdened by most types of pollution. According to the American Lung Association, people of color are 1.5 times more likely to live in an area with poor air quality compared to white people.
“Historically and now, low-income people and people of color have experienced disproportionate exposure to ambient air pollution or outdoor air pollution,” Haggerty said.
“When we have groups that are already burdened by disease from other exposures, adding indoor pollution on top of existing environmental injustices can exacerbate them.”
State Rep. Maxine Dexter, a pulmonary and critical care physician, joined the presentation to share her support in prioritizing indoor air pollution reduction in Multnomah County.
“As someone who sees these impacts and disparities on a very personal and professional level, I want to make sure we do everything we can to reduce the disease burden,” she said.
“It’s clear: Disease prevention must be a priority for all of us.”
Elliott Gall, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Portland State University whose research focus for the past 14 years has been indoor air quality, also addressed the Council. He shared about a study conducted by researchers at Johns Hopkins University showing that indoor levels of nitrogen dioxide (often used as a proxy of combustion) were shown to be double that of homes without a natural gas stove.
Furthermore, the study looked at 150 children in these homes and found increased exposure to air pollution, which causes an increase in asthma symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath.
“Given the widespread use of natural gas from cooking, the public health benefit of reducing exposure to emissions from appliances is substantial,” Gall said.
Beginning in 2023, Multnomah County residents will be eligible for incentives to switch from gas appliances to electric alternatives through the federal Inflation Reduction Act. These incentives range from to $8,000 per household for an electric heat pump, $1,750 for a heat pump and water heater, and $840 for an electric stove.
Haggerty shared that there are other steps people can take now to limit indoor air pollution from cooking if households cannot switch from a gas stove.
People can use electric appliances like a crockpot, Instant Pot or a portable induction cooktop to prepare food. An electric kettle can be used for boiling water. And if you do use a gas stove, Haggerty recommended you cook on the back burners. Using a range hood that vents outside, or opening a window while you cook, can also increase airflow and reduce indoor air pollution build-up.
Commissioner Sharon Meieran asked to explain whether gas stoves were the primary contributors to the impact on health risks.
“The research we looked at did its best to isolate the effects of gas stoves,” Haggerty said, confirming that the report focuses on the effects of gas stoves themselves, apart from other factors.
“I appreciate your education-forward approach,” the commissioner said Susheela Jayapal about the report presented.
Commissioner Jessica Vega Pedersen also acknowledged the educational approach of the report and presentation, noting that “getting information out there and just educating people about this information is a good place to start.”
Commissioner Lori Stegmann said that she appreciates information about the immediate steps that can affect the quality of health, such as using the back burner when using a gas stove.
Chairman Kafoury said the report was the first step in educating the community about the health risks posed by gas stoves.say. “We need to educate people about why this is even a problem. I tell people every day that gas stoves are dangerous and they don’t know,” she said.
“And then the board will be able to figure out if they want to take the next steps and move forward.”