The Board of Commissioners briefed on the Public Health review of health risks posed by gas stoves

November 10, 2022

A Multnomah County Health Department report suggests that gas stoves release dangerous air pollutants, and children living in homes with such appliances are 42% more likely to experience asthma symptoms. Citing those health concerns, the report recommends against combustion appliances like gas stoves to protect public health.

On Thursday, Nov. 10, the Board of County Commissioners received an informational briefing from Multnomah County Health Department experts on the report’s findings. The report highlighted that gas stoves release a variety of pollutants including nitrous oxide, carbon monoxide and volatile organic compounds. The report also highlighted the implications that these pollutants have on environmental justice, noting that Black, Indigenous, Latinx and other people of color face a greater and compounded risk from these indoor emissions because they also experience disproportionate exposure to outdoor air pollution.

Chair Deborah Kafoury requested the report on natural gas appliances, which falls in line with the Board’s commitment to prioritizing the reduction of the cumulative burden of air pollution as part of the Clean Air resolution adopted earlier this year in February.

Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey virtually joined Brendon Haggerty, interim program supervisor for Multnomah County Environmental Health

The primary focus of the report is to inform and educate the community on the extent to which gas appliances, such as gas stoves, contribute to indoor air quality pollution and health hazards, said Brendon Haggerty, the interim program supervisor for Multnomah County Environmental Health.

“I believe the briefing that we’re going to get on this report this morning will offer us information that is highly relevant to our work as the Board of Health,” said Chair Kafoury. 

“Our charge as the Board of Health is to improve public health and that, of course, means helping people make healthier choices and making those choices more understandable and more accessible.”

The report explains how gas stoves are a health risk in homes. Gas stoves are a source of combustion (burning) pollution. Ignition and extinguishment release a range of dangerous air pollutants, including concentrations of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) that are up to 50% to 400% higher than homes with electric stoves, according to research from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

“Gas stoves are a specific concern because they are a proximate source of indoor air pollution,” said Public Health Director Jessica Guernsey about the concern for gas stoves inside homes. 

Using a gas stove indoors exposes individuals in the home to pollutants for longer durations of time, as homes and buildings can trap pollutants. Guernsey shared that indoor pollutants have been ranked among the top-five environmental risks to public health, citing that individuals will spend 90% of their life indoors.

Even when stoves are turned off, said Haggerty, gas stoves can leak and still contribute indoor pollutants. 

Children are at a higher risk of being sensitive to indoor pollution due to their increased breathing rate, smaller bodies and higher lung-to-body ratios, shared Haggerty. Aging adults are also at higher risk due to the likeliness of underlying conditions, while anyone with respiratory or heart conditions is also more likely to be affected by indoor air pollution.

In Multnomah County, 1 in 10 adults report an asthma diagnosis, making it one of the most prevalent chronic illnesses in the county.

The report also details the inequitable harms of indoor air pollution, citing that low-income and Black, Indigenous, and people of color are disproportionately burdened by most types of pollution. According to the American Lung Association, people of color are 1.5 times  more likely to live in an area of poor air quality compared to white people.

“Historically and now, low-income people and people of color have experienced disproportionate exposure to ambient air pollution or outdoor air pollution,” said Haggerty.

“When we have groups that are already burdened by illness from other exposures, adding indoor pollution on top of that can exacerbate existing environmental injustices.” 

State Rep. Maxine Dexter, a pulmonary and critical care physician, joined the presentation to share her support in prioritizing the reduction of indoor air pollution in Multnomah County. 

“As someone who sees these impacts and inequities on a very personal and professional level, I want to make sure that we do all we can to decrease the illness burden,” she said.

“It’s clear: Prevention of disease must be a priority for all of us.” 

Elliott Gall, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at Portland State University whose research focus for the last 14 years has been indoor air quality, also addressed the Board. He shared about a study done by researchers at Johns Hopkins University showing that indoor levels of nitrogen dioxide (which is often used as a proxy of combustion) was shown to be double that of homes without a natural gas stove. 

Further, the study looked at 150 children in these homes and found elevated exposure to air pollution, causing an increase in asthma symptoms such as wheezing, coughing and shortness of breath. 

“Given the widespread use of natural gas from cooking, the public health benefit from reducing exposure to emissions from appliances is substantial,” said Gall. 

Starting in 2023, residents in Multnomah County will be eligible for incentives to transition from gas appliances to electric alternatives through the federal Inflation Reduction Act. These incentives range from up to $8,000 per household for an electric heat pump, $1,750 for a heat pump and water heater, and $840 for an electric stove. 

Haggerty shared that there are other steps people can take right now to limit indoor air pollution from cooking if households are unable to transition away from a gas stove.

People can use electric appliances like a crockpot, Instant Pot or a portable induction cooktop to prepare food. An electric kettle can be used for boiling water. And if you do use a gas stove, Haggerty recommended that you cook on the back burners. Using a range hood that vents outdoors, or opening a window while cooking, can also increase air flow and reduce the buildup of indoor air pollution.

Commissioner Sharon Meieran asked to clarify if gas stoves were the primary contributors to the impact on health risks.

“The research that we looked at did its best to isolate the effects of gas stoves,” said Haggerty, confirming that the report focuses on the effects of gas stoves themselves, aside from other factors. 

“I appreciate your education-forward approach,” said Commissioner Susheela Jayapal about the report presented. 

Commissioner Jessica Vega Pederson also recognized the educational approach of the report and presentation, noting that "getting information out there and just educating people about this information is a good place to start.”

Commissioner Lori Stegmann said that she appreciated information about the immediate steps that can impact the quality of health, such as using the back burner when using a gas stove. 

Chair Kafoury said the report is the first step in educating the community about the health risks that gas stoves pose. “We need to educate people on why this is even a problem. Every day I tell people that gas stoves are dangerous and they don’t know,” she said.

“And then the board will be able to figure out if they want to take the next steps and move forward.”