Healthy Homes for D.C.
October 30, 2023 by Kathryn Blanco
Amid growing concern over the health and climate impacts of natural gas appliances, the Washington, D.C. council has proposed a solution with the Healthy Homes Act.
Given recent summers filled with wildfire smoke, outdoor air quality often receives much of the attention in the environmental space. Yet according to the EPA, air quality indoors—where we people spend about 90% of their time—may be far worse than outdoors. One particularly notorious culprit is the gas stove, which, unlike other natural gas appliances that present similar greenhouse gas emissions issues, are not required to be vented outdoors. 61% of American households have at least one natural gas appliance, and 38% have a natural gas cooking appliance. In Washington, D.C. the numbers are even higher: 62% of households have a natural gas cooking appliance.
Natural gas stoves have been found to leak methane—a powerful greenhouse gas—even when turned off. A recent study estimated that methane emissions from all gas stoves in America are equivalent to the carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions of 500,000 cars. When in use, gas stoves also release particulate matter (PM2.5), carbon monoxide (CO), formaldehyde (CH2O or HCHO), and nitrogen oxides (NOx) including nitrogen dioxide (NO2), all of which are harmful to human health. Indoor levels of NO2 in particular have been found to exceed the outdoor standard (the EPA has set no indoor standard) when gas stoves are used without ventilation, as they are the majority of the time. Even when ventilation systems are used, performance varies. This is of particular concern in lower-income households, in which more people tend to live in smaller dwellings. Indoor pollution may also be more harmful for Black and Hispanic households who are already disproportionately exposed to outdoor pollutants in their neighborhoods.
Gas Stove Research – Confusing by Design
Studies suggest gas stoves increase the risks of asthma in children. According to a 2013 meta-analysis, children living in a home with gas cooking have a 32% increased risk of asthma (current and lifetime). A more recent study found that 12.7% “of current childhood asthma in the US is attributable to gas stove use.” This information is not new. There are studies dating back as far as 1970 demonstrating a connection between outdoor nitrogen dioxide pollution and respiratory illness, and a 1992 meta-analysis demonstrated that the amount of increased nitrogen dioxide exposure from gas stoves increased the odds of respiratory illness in children by about 20%.
So why have gas stoves remained so prevalent in American homes? According to a recent investigative report by NPR and the Climate Investigations Center (CIC), the American Gas Association (AGA) hired the same public relations firm that helped the tobacco industry “manufacture controversy” about the health impacts of smoking. Using similar tactics, the AGA emphasized the legitimate uncertainties inherent in epidemiological research and funded their own studies that downplayed the impact of gas stove pollutants on health.
At the same time, the AGA continued their marketing plan “Operation Attack,” which was launched in response to the increasing popularity of electric stoves. The campaign used the slogan “cooking with gas” for decades to promote gas stoves as the superior option to electric. The industry has been particularly protective of gas stoves because consumer demand for gas stoves, which require gas utility connections to be set up, makes it more likely those households will also use other gas-powered appliances, increasing the demand for natural gas. The campaign for gas stoves has had an enduring effect. According to a Washingtonian article, some kitchen designers in the D.C. area have found that, while some customers are beginning to become wary of gas stoves, most still default to gas.
In January, a commissioner at the Consumer Product Safety Commission highlighted the dangers posed by gas stoves and said a federal ban was on the table. While the agency never moved to impose such a ban, the House of Representatives passed the Gas Stove Protection and Freedom Act, H.R. 1615(118) to preemptively prevent any bans. However, the Act does not prevent state legislative action. The California Air Resources Board has voted to ban the sale of natural gas furnaces and water heaters by 2030, and New York has banned gas stoves and furnaces in new residential buildings. New York is currently defending their policies in court, and twenty other states have gone in the opposite direction, preempting municipalities from banning gas appliances.
Several municipalities have also introduced natural gas bans and faced legal challenges. In D.C., however, the City Council has taken a slightly different approach. The proposed Healthy Homes and Residential Electrification Amendment Act of 2023 would require the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment (DOEE) to replace gas appliances with efficient electric ones for up to 30,000 low-income families for free by 2040. The Act would also require the DOEE to develop a sliding-scale cost-sharing program for moderate income families, allow the DOEE to support retrofits for families above the income limits with any remaining funds, and require the DOEE to provide free or reduced-cost training on electric retrofits. The Act has a stick as well as a carrot—it would introduce a new building permit surcharge for the installation of new or replacement fossil fuel appliances (other than for restaurants) and prevent the D.C. government from installing fossil fuel appliances in certain public housing improvement projects.
Thirty-eight local organizations, including several environmental and community organizing groups, have signed on to a letter supporting the Healthy Homes Act, emphasizing that the Council Office of Racial Equity has determined that the Act would likely improve economic and health outcomes for Black, Indigenous, and other residents of color in D.C. The Healthy Homes Act provides an opportunity for D.C. to address the climate and potential health impacts of gas appliances while potentially avoiding the legal challenges other municipalities have faced.
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