Hype Aside, Gas is Anything but Clean

Kathleen Nolan for the Albany Times Union
Oct. 22, 2022

We’ve known for years that fossil fuel pollution from cars, trucks, ships and power plants is a menace to our health. As a physician and public health researcher, I feel the responsibility to ensure that the public also knows about an omnipresent yet silent and rarely noticed source of pollution that is continually making us sick, right beneath our noses: the gas we burn in our homes.


Kathleen Nolan for the Albany Times Union
Oct. 22, 2022
As I write this, 22 New Yorkers are deliberating what might become the most important public health document for our state in a generation.

 
The members of the Climate Action Council are finalizing a plan by which New York state will meet the commitments of our own climate law. This plan will become the basis for future rule-making and regulatory processes, as well as the foundation for climate legislation in the coming years. It’s a big job.
 
We’ve known for years that fossil fuel pollution from cars, trucks, ships and power plants is a menace to our health. As a physician and public health researcher, I feel the responsibility to ensure that the public also knows about an omnipresent yet silent and rarely noticed source of pollution that is continually making us sick, right beneath our noses: the gas we burn in our homes.

 

Indoor fossil fuel combustion in appliances like gas furnaces, water heaters and stoves produces hazardous air pollutants in our homes, offices and communities. Gas plumbing and appliances, especially gas stoves, frequently release toxic chemicals even when we don’t think the appliances are being used. Cooking with gas creates high levels of fine particulate matter, a lung irritant that penetrates deep into the lungs and can infiltrate the bloodstream. Exposure to fine particulate matter is closely associated with asthma and poor pregnancy outcomes (stillbirth, preterm birth, and low birth weight), with the pregnancies of Black mothers especially at risk. Research shows that unburned gas from stoves includes nearly two dozen hazardous air pollutants, including benzene, a carcinogen for which there is no safe level of exposure.
 
Pollution from fine particulate matter produced by burning fuel inside buildings led to an estimated 1,300 early deaths in New York in 2017. People of color in New York are exposed to 2.6 times as much outdoor fine particulate pollution from residential gas appliances than are white people.
 
For most of us, cooking with a gas stove is the closest and most personal interaction we have to the methane gas extracted by fracking. The fossil fuel industry has spent a lot of money on expensive advertising campaigns to get consumers to think that fracked gas is “natural” or “clean burning.” In our homes and kitchens, this is not true.
 
Cooking with gas creates nitrogen dioxide which is linked to asthma. In fact, children who live in a home with a gas stove are 42 percent more likely to have asthma. This is not theoretical. It only takes a few minutes of stove use for levels of nitrogen dioxide to build up in our homes to concentrations that are higher than what the EPA deems safe for outdoor exposure. The American Medical Association recently recognized the links between gas stoves, indoor nitrogen dioxide and asthma, and Harvard Medical School and other health professionals are providing guidance to patients on how to reduce their exposure. The outdoor nitrogen dioxide problem from buildings is particularly bad in New York, where buildings currently emit 43,000 tons of nitrogen oxides (NOx) pollution, more than buildings in any other state.
 
There are safer, cleaner alternatives to burning gas in buildings. Electric and electric-induction stoves are modern, safe and sleek alternatives to gas stoves. Heat pumps can heat and cool homes with electricity efficiently and at reduced cost to struggling families.
 
Despite their best efforts, the fossil fuel industry can’t deny the harms of their products anymore, nor the effectiveness of modern, electric alternatives. So they are deploying a strategy of distract and delay.
 
To distract, utilities are pushing false solutions like “green hydrogen” and “renewable natural gas,” technologies that create their own pollution problems, are extremely expensive, and distract from the real solution: to stop burning fossil fuels in buildings.
 
To delay, front groups like “New Yorkers for Affordable Energy,” “Smarter New York Energy,” “Energy Citizens,” “Natural Allies,” “State Solutions,” and “Consumer Energy Alliance” confuse the public by misrepresenting the benefits of more efficient electric appliances and minimizing the ongoing harms of continuing to use gas appliances.
 
These are simply tactics to shore up an imploding business model for a bit longer — yet at what cost? Our clean air, our health and our lives.
 
The Climate Action Council must see through such tactics and do right by New Yorkers, who deserve safe homes and a healthy future. Public health professionals across New York state agree that our leaders and elected officials must heed the clear scientific evidence and take steps now to reduce indoor pollution that drives climate change and harms health. These steps build on the following essential foundations: adopt policies that prioritize energy efficiency and electrification in buildings as the primary strategies to replace fossil fuel combustion, especially phasing in code requirements prohibiting on-site combustion of fossil fuels in new buildings over a 2024-2027 period; adopting zero-emissions appliance standards; and working with relevant state agencies to ensure equitable and effective implementation of these rules.
 
Imagine a generation of kids growing up with significantly less fossil fuel pollution than the generation before them — inside and outside their homes. This would be a public health breakthrough. Our children deserve this, and the Climate Action Council can make it a reality.
 
Dr. Kathleen Nolan of Kingston is president of Physicians for Social Responsibility-New York and a director of Concerned Health Professionals of New York.

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