Black Americans are 40% more likely to have asthma than white Americans. Black children are five times more likely to be hospitalized for the chronic lung condition. And while asthma-related deaths are decreasing overall, they remain most common among Black Americans.
These disparities make the contentious debate over banning gas stoves a particularly important one in Black communities. The kitchen appliance is known to emit dangerous pollutants like carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and formaldehyde, though research varies on how much those emissions affect asthma rates.
Restrictions on gas stoves have been increasing in progressive cities for years amid concerns that their emissions are significant contributors to global warming and health issues. California committed to phasing out natural gas furnaces and heaters by 2030. The District of Columbia and New York state are considering similar bans.
A recent study renewed questions about the use of natural-gas fueled appliances in homes. The research by RMI, a nonprofit that promotes clean energy, concluded that nearly 13% of childhood asthma cases have some relationship to gas stoves — though the study doesn’t assert that the relationship is causal.
News that a nationwide ban could be on the table ignited backlash this month from Republicans, who declared it the latest example of federal overreach on environmental regulations. While the head of the federal Consumer Product Safety Commission and President Joe Biden rejected the notion that a federal ban is imminent, environmental activists and some Democratic lawmakers have continued to call for limits on gas stove use in federal public housing and beyond because of the appliance’s threats to health.
In a letter to the Consumer Product Safety Commission last month, U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey and U.S. Rep. Don Beyer of Virginia, both Democrats, raised concerns about the connection between nitrogen dioxide and asthma and other health issues.
“These emissions can create a cumulative burden to households that are already more likely to face higher exposure to both indoor and outdoor air pollution. Statistics show that Black, Latino, and low-income households are more likely to experience disproportionate air pollution,” the lawmakers wrote, citing malfunctioning appliances and poor ventilation among the contributors.
Beyond gas stoves
Electric stoves are the dominant range in household kitchens today, but gas stoves are still present in more than a third of U.S. homes. Advocates have been rallying to get rid of natural gas-fueled appliances for years, particularly in low-income housing, where Black folks make up a disproportionately high percentage of residents.
A pilot program called Out of Gas launched in the Bronx and Buffalo, New York, in 2021 replaced gas stoves with induction stoves in 20 affordable housing homes to illustrate the benefits of switching from fossil fuels. WE ACT for Environmental Justice will be releasing a study of the findings later this month, said project leader Annie Carforo.
But there’s been pushback from conservative lawmakers and the fossil fuel industry. As some cities and states have restricted gas stoves, a countermovement has emerged. Twenty states — largely Republican led — have passed legislation prohibiting local restrictions on natural gas use in buildings, according to an analysis last summer by S&P Market Intelligence.
The extent to which stove tops affect the racial disparities that show up in asthma rates remains unclear. There are a lot of triggers for asthma, including a wide range of environmental emissions and air pollutants, said Dr. Thomas Scott, an Alabama-based allergist and immunologist.
Among those pollutants is methane, the potent greenhouse gas that leaks from gas stoves but is also emitted from many industrial sources outside of people’s homes. U.S. production of natural gas, which is primarily composed of methane, has nearly doubled since 2005.
While widely promoted as the cleaner alternative to coal and other fossil fuels, natural gas use now produces more than one-third of the country’s carbon pollution — and Black Americans are 75% more likely to live near gas production sites than white Americans.
This pollution from industrial sites, as well as traffic-related air pollution and chemicals used in manufacturing and other workplaces, also contribute to high asthma rates among Black Americans. Scott, past chair for the National Medical Association’s allergy, asthma, & immunology section, said he hesitates to focus on gas stoves since there are so many other pollutants contributing to asthma rates.
“Many of our people live in communities where they have redlining and urban renewal. They built major interstates and freeways in Black neighborhoods,” said Scott. “Air quality is a major issue outside of the house.”
The issue is structural racism, said Dr. Margee Louisias, a spokesperson for the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America. Where Black folks live and how they live is affected by decades of racist housing policies that in turn affect health outcomes. How well your home is ventilated and whether you can afford an electric stove are social factors that may impact asthma rates among Black youth.
If a national ban on gas stoves were to take effect, marginalized communities would be less able to get rid of their gas stoves, buy new appliances, or make upgrades to improve the ventilation in their homes, said Louisias. That could worsen health inequities unless there’s additional financial support, she said.
“It’s almost like a compounding effect,” Louisias said.
Capital B climate and environment reporter Adam Mahoney contributed to this report.
This story was originally published Jan. 18, 2023, by Capital B News.