One day in April 2019, Ángela Norales, a public housing tenant at 1471 Watson Ave. in the Bronx, went to the hospital complaining of shortness of breath. When she arrived, her doctors told her she was lucky to be alive.
The cause of her breathing problems? Exposure to natural gas fumes, according to her doctors. Firefighters repaired the leak in the line to her stove once they were alerted to it. Thinking back on it, Norales says she believes that the leaked fumes may have been making her sick for nearly a year.
“With the gas stove, I was worried,” Norales, 85, said in a recent interview. “I used to close my door when I went to bed—maybe that helped me.”
A recent study by a group of environmental activists in New York City, WE ACT for Environmental Justice, sought to measure the extent to which replacing gas stoves with electric ranges could affect indoor air quality.
Scientists have long established a link between gas stoves and poor air quality inside homes, with one recent study noting that the appliances can emit hazardous methane and nitrogen oxides even when they are not in use.
But the WE ACT study, which was based on both long-term air monitoring and cooking tests using a spaghetti dinner in a half-dozen apartments, helped to quantify just how much air quality differs between using gas and electricity. Researchers found that gas stoves produced nearly three times the concentrations of nitrogen dioxide, and roughly twice the levels of carbon monoxide, than in kitchens with electric induction stoves.
“The concentrations during the controlled cooking test were really high,” said Michael Johnson, the technical director for the Berkeley Air Monitoring Group, which collaborated with WE ACT on the study, which was not peer-reviewed research.
Currently, the Environmental Protection Agency’s Air Quality Index only provides guidelines for outdoor air pollution, including one-hour exposures to nitrogen dioxide—a limit of 54 parts per billion.
The study found that households with gas stoves experienced an average of 56 minutes per day above this threshold. In apartments with induction stoves, the average was four minutes.
In some apartments, Johnson said, researchers found that the concentration of nitrogen dioxide reached 600 parts per billion while cooking with gas.
“If that’s happening regularly in the homes just from the act of normal cooking, people are going to be chronically exposed to these peak exposures that are really deemed unhealthy,” Johnson added.
In the home of María Leger, another tenant at 1471 Watson Ave., her gas stove remained in place during the WE ACT study. The study monitored air quality for 10 months in 10 apartments still using gas stoves and 10 equipped with new electric induction stoves. None of the apartments that participated in the pilot had a functioning range hood above the stove to help with ventilation, the report said. (At the end of the study, the 10 participants with gas stoves also received new induction stoves).
“I had a lot of pain in my chest for a long time,” Leger said in Spanish. “When the gas stove was taken away, the pain went down.”
A spokesman for the gas industry dismissed those findings and said this study and many others like it do not give a “very realistic picture on what impacts indoor air quality.”
“It’s a much broader picture than just a gas stove that’s on for 20 minutes a day,” said Frank Masiano, a media specialist for Bracewell LLP, a Houston-based law firm that represents utilities and natural gas producers. “You can’t really say that if people get rid of their gas stoves, we’re going to get rid of asthma, because there are so many other factors, outside factors, in both indoor air quality—pets, dander, mite, dust mites, mold—all these things as well as economic conditions that people live in. So all of those things create an unstable playing field.”
Josiah Kephart, an assistant professor in the Department of Environmental and Occupational Health at Drexel University’s Dornsife School of Public Health, said that “we have long known that gas stoves produce indoor air pollution that harms health.”
Kephart pointed to a recent peer-reviewed study that found that 12 percent of childhood asthma nationwide is attributed to gas stove use.
“That means that 87 percent of asthma cases are attributable to other things that include genetics or other environmental causes. There’s also outdoor air pollution,” said Kephart. “So nobody is saying that gas stoves are the only cause of asthma. But it does seem very clear that they increase your risk by around 35 percent.”
WE ACT, a nonprofit organization that has advocated for cleaner air in Northern Manhattan since 1988, sees putting electric stoves in the homes of public housing residents like Norales as a first step toward fully decarbonizing housing. The report announcing the results of the study also includes policy recommendations that encourage lawmakers to consider environmental justice by prioritizing low-income housing in building decarbonization efforts.
“This was our first really on-the-ground science experiment,” said WE ACT climate justice coordinator Annie Carforo, who managed the pilot program. “It led to a lot of important findings that we’re using in our advocacy going forward.”
Carforo said that the nonprofit’s next steps are to help pass a number of bills in the New York State Senate and in Congress that will help transition buildings to all-electric cooking and heating. While they saw a significant improvement in air quality from replacing individual gas stoves, the organization is pushing for full building conversions.
“We were still seeing remnant nitrogen dioxide in the air that we can assume is coming from the boiler, coming from cars outside, coming from neighboring gas stoves in other apartments,” Carforo added.
Residential Electrification to Lower Emissions
In a dense urban area like New York City, burning fossil fuels in buildings for heating and cooking is responsible for 70 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. WE ACT researchers said the move to decarbonize housing is a necessary step toward reducing greenhouse gas emissions that can simultaneously address interrelated environmental, health and social inequities, but only if vulnerable populations are prioritized.
According to Carforo, existing conditions such as mold, lead, asbestos and pests that many low-income New Yorkers are living with often disqualify their buildings from most weatherization or energy efficiency programs.
For Norales, who received an electric stove last year as part of the WE ACT study, the new appliance has been transformative. “It is the best thing that has happened to me in my life,” Norales said in Spanish. “Now I am safer with an electric stove.”
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Norales, who was treated and released the same day she arrived at a Bronx hospital with breathing problems in 2019, was the first person in the housing complex to receive an induction stove.
Michelle Feliciano, the construction manager for the Association for Energy Affordability, who led participant recruitment for the study, said that few people were interested in the new stoves at first.
Much of the hesitation came from a fear of change: induction stoves require specific cookware and many residents didn’t want to give up their seasoned pots and pans. By the end of the study, however, people who had initially turned down the stoves were asking how they could get one, Feliciano said.
While electric stoves are not new, induction stove technology is advancing. Induction stoves use a coil with a magnetic field to create heat only when in contact with cast iron and many types of stainless steel cookware. The magnetic field creates electrical currents that heat up only the pot or pan. The glass “burner” where the pot is placed doesn’t get hot. Thus, induction stoves can heat up food in a fraction of the time and for a fraction of the energy.
“The heat is coming from the pot itself getting excited,” said Heather Miller, research associate for the Berkeley Air Monitoring Group. By contrast, with a regular electric stove that requires first heating a coil, she said, “you’re losing a lot of heat to the surroundings because of how much you have to heat the element up first before you heat the pot.”
The Association for Energy Affordability scheduled a demonstration with a professional chef in the organization’s office in the Bronx, where they had recently installed a new induction stove. The electric range used in the study included an induction stovetop and an air fryer in the oven. They also made instructional videos in both English and Spanish and uploaded them to WE ACT’s YouTube channel.
“I learned it so fast,” said Norales, standing proudly next to the spotless induction stove that’s now been in her kitchen for a year. “I learned faster than my daughter.”
Darby Jack, an associate professor at Columbia University’s Medical Center and an adviser for the study, said he believes this is the tip of the iceberg and he hopes more studies follow in the footsteps of this one.
“The bottom line is this is one of many opportunities that society has to improve health and reduce greenhouse gas emissions and provide high quality energy services,” Jack said. “My hope is that there will be real societal resources put into making sure that everybody is brought along in this transition to clean, high quality energy.”