In 1976, renowned chef, cookbook author, and television personality Julia Child made a return to WGBH-TV’s studios in Boston for a new cooking show, “Julia Child & Company,” following her successful series “The French Chef.” Unbeknownst to viewers at the time, Child’s upgraded kitchen studio, equipped with gas stoves, was financially supported by the American Gas Association. While this might seem like a typical case of corporate sponsorship, it was, in fact, part of a strategic initiative by gas industry executives to promote the widespread adoption of gas stoves across the United States. The focus extended beyond stoves alone, as the gas industry aimed to expand its residential market, anticipating that homes using gas for cooking would likely also choose it for heating and hot water. Recent research from the nonprofit Climate Investigations Center, specializing in corporate actions against climate science, along with a National Public Radio investigation, has revealed that when concerns arose in the early 1970s regarding the health impacts of indoor nitrogen dioxide exposure from gas stoves, the American Gas Association initiated a campaign to cast doubt on the existing scientific evidence. As someone who has extensively studied air pollution, including the contribution of gas stoves to indoor air pollution and associated health effects, I am not unfamiliar with the strategies some industries employ to sidestep or delay regulations. However, I was taken aback to discover that the multifaceted strategy employed by the gas industry closely mirrored the tactics employed by the tobacco industry in undermining and distorting scientific evidence related to the health risks of smoking, a pattern that emerged in the 1950s.
Creating controversy was a key strategy employed by the gas industry, and they enlisted the services of Hill & Knowlton, the same public relations firm responsible for orchestrating the tobacco industry’s response to research linking smoking with lung cancer. Employing tactics reminiscent of the tobacco industry’s playbook, Hill & Knowlton sponsored research aimed at countering scientific literature findings regarding gas stoves, highlighting uncertainties to fabricate controversy and employing aggressive public relations campaigns.
One instance involved the gas industry acquiring and reanalyzing data from an EPA study on Long Island that initially indicated more respiratory issues in homes with gas stoves. Their reanalysis, however, claimed no significant differences in respiratory outcomes. In the early 1970s, the industry funded its own health studies, which acknowledged substantial variations in nitrogen dioxide exposures but failed to demonstrate significant differences in respiratory outcomes. These findings were disseminated in publications that did not disclose industry funding, and they played a role in shaping major government reports summarizing the scientific literature.
What makes this campaign noteworthy is that the understanding of how gas stoves impact indoor air pollution and respiratory health was clear-cut and well-established during that period. The combustion of fuel, including natural gas, produces nitrogen oxides, and nitrogen dioxide, a known respiratory health hazard, is generated as these gases react at elevated temperatures. Inhaling nitrogen dioxide can lead to respiratory irritation and exacerbate conditions such as asthma, prompting the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to establish an outdoor air quality standard for nitrogen dioxide in 1971. Although no indoor air standards existed at the time, the EPA now recognizes the harmful effects of indoor nitrogen dioxide exposure.
To what extent does exposure to nitrogen dioxide indoors pose a health risk? The crucial inquiry hinges on whether the levels associated with gas stoves are significant enough to raise health concerns. While these levels can differ among households, scientific investigations consistently affirm that the answer is affirmative, particularly in smaller residences and instances of inadequate ventilation.
This understanding is not recent. A study from 1998, co-authored by myself, identified gas stoves as the predominant factor predicting personal exposure to nitrogen dioxide. Earlier research from the 1970s also indicated that indoor nitrogen dioxide concentrations in the presence of gas stoves could surpass outdoor levels significantly. Depending on the adequacy of ventilation, concentrations could escalate to levels acknowledged to contribute to health risks.
Despite the wealth of evidence supporting these concerns, the gas industry’s campaign yielded considerable success. Industry-backed studies effectively introduced ambiguity into the discourse, a phenomenon I have observed throughout my research career, stymying further federal investigations or regulations aimed at addressing the safety of gas stoves.
The matter regained prominence in late 2022 with the publication of a new study estimating that approximately 12.7% of childhood asthma cases in the U.S. – roughly one case in eight – could be attributed to gas stoves. Nevertheless, the industry persists in casting doubt on the association between gas stoves and health effects, perpetuating pro-gas stove media campaigns through its funding initiatives.
Anxiety surrounding residential gas usage persists today due to its hindrance of the ongoing transition to renewable energy, a critical shift given the increasingly evident impacts of climate change. In response, certain cities have either shifted or contemplate plans to prohibit gas stoves in new constructions, opting for a transition towards electrifying buildings.
As communities grapple with these pivotal decisions, it is imperative for regulators, politicians, and consumers to possess accurate information regarding the hazards associated with gas stoves and other household products. While there is room for robust discourse that considers a spectrum of evidence, I firmly believe that everyone is entitled to transparency regarding the origins of such evidence.
The commercial interests of several industries, encompassing alcohol, tobacco, and fossil fuels, may not invariably align with the public interest or human health. In my perspective, unveiling the strategies employed by vested interests to manipulate the public can enhance the discernment of consumers and regulators, potentially acting as a deterrent for other industries contemplating similar tactics.