Just how bad are gas appliances for your health?

It’s not all about the climate. There are loads of reasons to ditch gas stoves and appliances — and health concerns may be at the top of the list.
By Alison F. Takemura

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(Rob Jackson, Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability; Binh Nguyen/Canary Media)

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Canary Media’s Electrified Life column shares real-world tales, tips, and insights to demystify what individuals can do to shift their homes and lives to clean electric power. Canary thanks EnergySage for its support of the column.

Electrifying our appliances isn’t only a climate solution; it’s a public health measure. Burning fossil gas in our homes — whether to heat our rooms, warm water for our showers, dry our clothes, or cook our food — releases pollutants that can make people sick.

Yet it’s easy to forget the health risks when gas appliances are so prevalent: 61 percent of American households burn fossil gas in at least one appliance, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

The fossil gas industry wants to keep it that way. For decades, it has mirrored the tactics of Big Tobacco to sow doubt about the dangers of these appliances, especially of gas stoves.

But evidence of the health risks of gas appliances has been mounting since the 1970s, and the past couple of years have seen a renaissance of research on the topic, said Brady Seals, buildings and air-quality expert at climate think tank RMI. (Canary Media is an independent affiliate of RMI.)

Concerned groups are now taking historic action to protect consumers. Lawmakers in California are moving closer to requiring warning labels for all new gas stoves sold in the state. And advocates have filed a first-of-its-kind lawsuit against manufacturer GE Appliances to push the company to put warning labels on its gas stoves.

You or your friends or family might have questions about what exactly the science says about the health hazards of gas appliances. Let’s answer them.

1. Are gas appliances bad for me even when not in use? 

Unfortunately, stoves, water heaters, furnaces, and other fossil-fuel equipment frequently leak gas even when they’re off. And although stinky compounds are added to fossil gas to make these leaks easier to sniff out, they can still be evasive — and dangerous for reasons beyond flammability.

Fossil gas is made mostly of methane (CH4), a potent greenhouse gas, though not directly toxic. But fossil gas also contains a panoply of harmful compounds.

A study published this month found 25 hazardous air pollutants in gas analyzed from hundreds of U.S. and Canadian homes. The carcinogen benzene showed up in 97 percent of samples.

While the average level of leaked benzene stayed under the safety threshold set by California regulators, Sebastian Rowland, scientist at nonprofit research institute PSE Healthy Energy and lead author of the study, points out that even low levels of benzene can cause leukemia and other blood cell cancers. That’s why the World Health Organization says no level of benzene exposure is safe.

Even when your stove’s off,” Rowland said, it could be exposing you to a chronic low level of benzene without you ever becoming aware of it.”

2. What are the health risks of burning that gas in my home?

Combusting gas emits yet more pollutants. Perhaps most infamous among them is carbon monoxide (CO), a partial combustion product of methane. Odorless and invisible, carbon monoxide kills more than 400 people every year in the U.S., according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Burning fossil gas also creates dangerous particulate matter. Particulates with up to a 2.5-micrometer diameter (PM2.5) — just 5 percent the width of a human hair — can work their way deep into the lungs and the bloodstream, causing respiratory and cardiovascular problems and even premature death in people with heart or lung disease. Research has shown that gas stoves emit twice as much PM2.5 as electric stoves when cooking the same food.

Other harmful combustion products are nitrogen dioxide (NO2) and its precursor nitrogen oxide (NO). NO2 inflames the lining of the lungs and is linked to respiratory diseases, including asthma.

And while gas appliances don’t emit as much NO2 as vehicles, they’re still massively polluting. Appliances in U.S. buildings release 425,000 tons of harmful nitrogen oxides each year — more than oil refineries or gas-fired power plants.

3. What are the health risks of gas stoves in particular?

Gas stoves are often the worst offenders for indoor air quality, because unlike gas furnaces, water heaters, and dryers, they’re not typically required to be vented outdoors. Gas stove flames can raise NO2 levels into the hundreds of parts per billion, exceeding the outdoor national standard in just a few minutes. That pollution can roam quickly throughout the home and linger for hours. Electric stoves, by contrast, don’t emit NO2.

Peer-reviewed research shows that gas-stove pollution especially impacts children. After being exposed to gas cooking, kids are more likely to use their asthma inhalers at night. And children who live in homes with gas stoves have an estimated 42 percent increased risk of asthma symptoms. Seals and co-authors used that risk assessment in a 2022 analysis to estimate that more than 12 percent of childhood asthma cases nationwide are linked to gas stoves — a value that sent shock waves through the public consciousness.

Adults are susceptible to gas stove pollutants, too. A May 2024 study estimated that up to 19,000 adult deaths annually in the U.S. could be attributed to gas stoves, which is roughly 40 percent of the fatalities from secondhand smoking.

4. Can’t I just improve my ventilation to get rid of the pollutants from my gas appliances?

Ventilation helps, but gas leaks can be persistent; to dissipate them entirely, you’d need to be ventilating your home all the time.

If you’re cooking on a gas stove, you can open a window or use the range hood if you have one. But those measures aren’t necessarily enough. The performance of exhaust hoods varies widely, with some only capturing as little as 15 percent of emissions. And hoods working hard enough to expel pollutants can be annoyingly loud, which could be a reason why research shows that people don’t use them much.

What’s more, ventilating doesn’t make the pollution go away; it makes it a community-wide problem. All the lung-harming NO and NO2 (NOx) pollution from vented appliances contributes to ground-level ozone, a component of smog. As the American Lung Association puts it, breathing in ozone is like getting a sunburn on your lungs.” An RMI analysis found that pollutants from building appliances in 2017 alone caused an estimated 5,400 premature deaths.

That killer pollution is why California is effectively banning the sale of new gas water heaters and furnaces by 2030.

5. I’m worried about the health impacts of gas appliances. What can I do?

A first step is to make sure your fossil-fired appliances are working properly, and for those that vent, check that their ducts aren’t blocked or damaged. Getting a home energy audit is one way to give these systems a safety checkup.

But, when you’re able to, the best action you can take for your health and the climate is to transition to zero-emission appliances, said Katherine Pruitt, senior director of nationwide clean air policy at the American Lung Association. That means switching to electric options — preferably ultra-efficient heat pumps, which can do home heating and cooling, water heating, and even clothes drying — and to electric stoves, either smoothtop electric resistance or newer induction tech.

If you’re not able to electrify everything right now, make a plan so that you’ve already done the homework required to replace your fossil appliances with electric equipment as they age out.

As for gas stoves, if you’re a renter and can’t replace yours, or aren’t sure about induction, Seals recommends trying a portable option. You can buy an induction hot plate online for under $70. If you’re lucky, you might be able to borrow one from your local library instead and see how you like it. Here’s a great rundown of other practical tips to reduce gas-stove pollution.

Local, utility, and federal incentives make the task of electrifying your appliances more affordable, if not cheap.

Thanks to the historic 2022 Inflation Reduction Act, generous federal tax credits are available now and rebates for lower-income households are just starting to roll out. This free money can knock thousands of dollars off the costs of electrification. Check out this cheat sheet to learn more about how the climate law can help you ditch fossil fuels — and protect your family’s health.

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Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.