Parents around the country are now grappling with the fresh uncertainties of a new school year under COVID-19. Distance learning and work-from-home life means millions of Americans will continue spending significant amounts of time inside for the foreseeable future. As a physician–and as an aunt of two young kids–this concerns me deeply.
With the continued spread of COVID-19, I am still counseling my patients to stay at home as much as possible and mask up when they go outside. At the same time, we need to acknowledge that for households with gas stoves, air pollution from these appliances threatens their families’ safety at home. Gas stoves produce fine particulate matter, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide. Healthcare professionals are increasingly recognizing indoor air pollution as a largely unregulated and under-reported health risk; one we can no longer ignore given the urgency of this pandemic. While staying at home decreases the spread of the virus, we need to make staying indoors even safer for our families by addressing the health risks of gas stoves and regulating indoor air pollution.
Even before the pandemic, studies show people spent about 90 percent of their time inside. Gas stoves are a main source of home air pollution, contributing to air quality so poor it would be illegal outside under current national air quality standards. Indoor nitrogen dioxide concentrations can actually reach levels 50 percent to 400 percent times higher than those found outdoors. Nitrogen dioxide is a health risk linked to respiratory complications and reduced cognitive function in children and adults. Exposure to nitrogen dioxide is associated with poor lung function and worsening asthma symptoms, including more frequent coughing and wheezing. Alarmingly, one analysis suggests a child living in a home with a gas stove has a 32 percent increased risk of having asthma. Unfortunately, there is minimal awareness about indoor air pollution, let alone serious discussions about reasonable standards to keep our families safe.
Low-income families may be disproportionately affected by indoor air pollution. Smaller homes are susceptible to higher levels of gas stove pollution, and cramped apartments frequently have insufficient ventilation. In addition, some communities of color may also be disproportionately impacted, including Black children who have the highest rates of asthma. One study found that higher indoor nitrogen dioxide concentration was associated with increased asthma symptoms in inner city preschool-aged children, the majority of whom were Black children. The impact of indoor air pollution on the respiratory health of these children sets them up for a lifetime of breathing challenges, not to mention the associated economic costs of managing a chronic disease like asthma.
In addition to nitrogen dioxide, gas stoves are also a large contributor of fine particulate matter, another harmful component of air pollution. Estimates predict 230,000 to 300,000 U.S. deaths in 2012 were people whose health was impacted by fine particulate matter from both indoor and outdoor air pollution. A UCLA report found that if all residential gas appliances in California were swapped out with clean electric appliances, the reduction in air pollution would save over 350 lives and produce approximately $3.5 billion in health benefits in just one year. Despite clear health and economic incentives, the EPA currently has no guidelines that regulate indoor air pollution.
In recent years, the EPA has acted in direct contradiction with its stated purpose of facilitating a “cleaner, healthier environment for the American people.” The EPA undermined the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards (MATS), which limit the release of over 80 toxic air pollutants from coal-fired plants. The agency also weakened fuel economy standards with The Safer Affordable Fuel-Efficient (SAFE) Vehicles Rule. We need an EPA that protects American families, not fossil fuel giants. We must demand legislation that restores basic human rights, like breathing clean air. Quite simply, we need the EPA to create federal standards so we know when the air inside our homes is safe for our families to breathe. This would allow us to require manufacturers and installers to meet certain standards when installing new stoves and require provisions for adequate ventilation.
Meanwhile, parents and caregivers should be sure to use ventilation and open windows when cooking if possible. Cooking will always produce some pollutants, but transitioning from a gas stove to an electric or induction stove will decrease the release of dangerous air pollutants such as nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. For the benefit of families who cannot afford these upgrades, our government leaders need to consider implementing alarm systems when pollution levels are high, offering financial support to go electric, and improving ventilation systems.
Home should be a safe, healthy place for families and children at all times, most especially during a pandemic. It is time to address the hidden threats in the air we breathe, and demand that federal, state, and local leaders prioritize our right to breathe clean air within our homes.