The Cooktop Controversy
Electric stoves improve both human and planetary health—so why aren't the newest versions, induction cooktops, getting higher billing in the climate crisis conversation?
By Jamie Gold
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Covid has made it painfully clear that our home environments have a significant impact on our health and safety. We’ve always spent too much time indoors, where the air can be two to five times more polluted than outdoor air, according to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). But that exposure increased even further in 2020 when the pandemic drove everyone into their homes, where air quality is often significantly worse than in office buildings. Clean indoor air is particularly important for communities in urban and industrial areas, which have greater exposure to air pollution, especially nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, ozone, and inhalable particulate matter smaller than 10 microns in diameter. These communities have had higher rates of Covid infection and mortality, several international studies have shown.
One major source of indoor air pollution is not only routinely overlooked but often showcased proudly in people’s homes: the gas stove. The slow poisoning of one’s health and the environment from kitchen appliances lacks the telegenic urgency of a hurricane or a wildfire, and perhaps that’s why media coverage has been low-key. A quick Google search of “Dangers of gas cooktops/ranges” yields no U.S. first-page coverage nor any broadcast or cable TV results. Health professionals are doing their best to spread the word, but they’re not getting calls from news outlets covering the pollution or the environment.
The health risks of these appliances rate far more attention than they have received. With a timely wellness argument, a consortium of 26 organizations, including Physicians for Social Responsibility, the Public Health Law Center, and the Respiratory Health Association, petitioned the EPA in August 2022 to list gas heating appliances, including those for cooking, as a category to be covered by the Clean Air Act. “Appliance pollution has significant health impacts, from increasing the rates of asthma to causing thousands of premature deaths each year,” the petitioners wrote. “The Covid-19 pandemic has highlighted the danger of poor air quality and the compounding health impacts of air pollution on vulnerable populations like children, low-income communities, and individuals with preexisting health conditions.”
Research co-led by investigators at Harvard’s T. H. Chan School of Public Health and published in Environmental Science & Technology in June 2022 described the health risks of hazardous chemicals being emitted by gas burners and other heating appliances. The study noted that while the presence of volatile organic compounds (VOCs) is well documented for unprocessed natural gas, their presence at the point of end use—including in the blue flame in your kitchen—has been largely uncharacterized. The study found that gas burners emit 21 different VOCs designated as hazardous air pollutants known to cause cancer and a range of other adverse health effects; and, because pilot flames are always on in older gas models, this is often true even when the burners are not in use.
A separate, 2021 study from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory noted that “cooking appliances are among the largest sources of air pollutant emissions inside many homes” and that residential building codes for ventilation are inadequate to address the risk. Even in homes with industry-recommended ventilation systems (notably lacking in 90 percent of rentals), researchers quoted by the National Center for Healthy Housing in April 2022 “did not observe significant changes in the levels of nitrogen dioxide, which primarily come from gas stoves, countering the misconception that opening windows or increasing ventilation is enough to address the health impacts of these appliances.”
And that’s when vent hoods are working properly and being used. Some vents are so noisy and ineffective that owners never turn them on; furthermore, many home chefs bend over pots, pans, and woks while cooking, exposing their lungs to burner output before it reaches the hood.
It doesn’t have to be this way. Electric stoves do not emit VOCs and nitrogen dioxide, since they generate no flame. They’ve gotten a bad rap from decades of consumer complaints aimed at old electric-coil stoves, but the modern version—the induction cooktop, which generates magnetic currents in the heating elements—works smoothly and intuitively, readily syncing with variable vent hoods designed to pair with cooktops for each cooking session.
The new technology is getting a major boost, as cities across the country from Berkeley to New York City have enacted or are in the process of enacting bans on natural gas use in residential buildings. Proponents of natural-gas bans say it’s a necessary step to limit the growth of carbon emissions. Buildings account for 13 percent of those emissions, according to data from the EPA.
The gas bans are not without their critics, however. Anti-poverty organizations worry that electric appliances’ higher cooking costs will hurt low-income communities, though estimates vary by region and don’t factor in the extra energy required to air-condition a gas-heated kitchen. The gas industry and its allies emphasize the extra strain these bans can place on already burdened electrical grids. Legislators in 20 states have passed laws preventing cities from enacting these bans, arguing that they are an affront to consumer choice.
In California, where natural gas bans have been proposed or have passed in cities across the state, some Asian-American restaurant owners see an insult to their food culture. “You cannot cook with an electric wok,” laments Chin Ho Liao, vice mayor of San Gabriel, California. “You can cook with them, but it won’t taste good,” he told California Healthline. On the other side, in a recent video appearance, celebrated Hong Kong chef Martin Yan said that induction delivers “all the responsiveness of gas, but is better for you and the environment.”
There is the issue of higher appliance and utility costs; induction cooktops are currently more expensive, on average, than gas ranges. To offset that burden and to spur the decarbonization of American homes, appliance buyers are being offered an $840 rebate for electric stoves and cooktops through the 2022 Inflation Reduction Act. This can be an additional incentive for homeowners to replace an aging gas appliance with an induction model.
The higher cost does deliver benefits that gas models lack. In addition to improving air quality and providing excellent performance, induction cooks in half the time. Modern electric stoves are also easier to clean than gas stoves, since spills don’t bake onto burners and there’s just a smooth, level surface to wipe down. Induction cooking, in particular, reduces the chances of burns and kitchen fires because there’s no flame and the surface stays mostly cool.
I’ve been touting the benefits of induction cooking—speed, convenience, efficiency, and above all better health—since I became a kitchen designer in 2004. Back then I had very few takers; most clients wanted high-BTU gas cooktops and ranges. I remember only two luxury kitchen clients choosing an induction cooktop in my first four years of designing. During that same time, I sold hundreds of gas models.
With the increasing popularity of modern style in this decade, more designers have been promoting sleek induction cooktops and ranges to clients. Jessica Petrino, an appliance educator at retailer AJ Madison, told Green Builder in October 2021 that induction was growing faster than any other cooking technology in the United States. A 2021 consumer survey conducted by the Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers reported that 61 percent of respondents expressed interest in induction.
I’ve also heard common misconceptions about induction cooking, many of them relating to fears that exposure to electromagnetic fields could pose a health hazard. A World Health Organization (WHO) study noted a lack of evidence for any kind of long-term health effects from medium-frequency magnetic fields. In a 2021 design industry focus group I took part in, a participant said that her obstetrician warned her specifically against using an induction cooktop while she was pregnant. Rashmi Kudesia, a reproductive endocrinologist and board-certified obstetrician/gynecologist in Houston, responds that she knows of no cases of pregnant women or their babies being harmed by induction technology. Kudesia adds that “the published data to date are reassuring.” (See here, here and here.) Hugh Taylor, MD, chair of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at Yale School of Medicine, agrees: “All high-power electronics create electromagnetic fields. Induction stoves do. But there is no good evidence that this is harmful.” In contrast, VOCs and nitrogen dioxide are known health hazards, ones that millions of people are routinely spewing in their kitchens.
It appears that environmental, medical, and building-science professionals all support replacing gas cooking appliances with induction models. If you need extra convincing, that $840 rebate check from the Inflation Reduction Act may be just the incentive you need to enhance your kitchen’s health and safety potential.
Sometimes seemingly small, unsexy lifestyle decisions can have a big impact on our health and quality of life.
October 13, 2022