Environment

Your stove is leaking way more gas than you think

It's bad for your health and the warming climate.
By Mark Kaufman  on 
a gas burner on a stove
A gas stove burning methane. Credit: Astrid Tschuden / Getty Images

In the U.S., energy researchers found many gas stoves leak — particularly when they're off.

In new research published Thursday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology, scientists measured gases coming from gas stoves in over 50 homes, when the appliances were on and off. (There's scant research on leaks from turned-off stoves.) The critical climate and health findings are:

  • Over 75 percent of methane leaking from natural gas stoves happens when the stoves are off. (Methane is the primary component of natural gas, also called fossil natural gas, or fossil gas.)

  • With over 40 million homes using gas stoves in the U.S., this leaking methane — a potent greenhouse gas — has the same warming impact as half a million gas-powered cars driven annually. (Around 1 percent of the gas used by stoves is ultimately leaked out as unburned methane, the study concluded.)

  • The air pollution created by burning gas produces pollutants like nitrogen oxides that can easily exceed national standards in homes, particularly in poorly ventilated kitchens.

"Gas stoves warm the planet and introduce more indoor pollutants into the air we breathe," Rob Jackson, a professor of energy and environment at Stanford University, told Mashable. "It adds additional reasons to promote electrification."

"Gas stoves warm the planet and introduce more indoor pollutants into the air we breathe."

The researchers found leaking gas in a huge diversity of stoves, ranging over 18 different brands and aged from three to 30 years old. (They didn't find any relationship between the age or cost of a stove and how much it leaked.) Critically, over time small leaks add up to a big number, particularly when amassed over an entire nation. "The amount of gas that a typical stove leaks is fairly small," noted Jackson. "But there are 40 million gas stoves in the U.S."

The heavy reliance on gas stoves in the U.S. is part of a built-in, systemic reliance on burning fossil fuels, which are decomposed collections of carbon-rich organisms that died millions of years ago. Thirty-four percent of U.S. energy comes from burning methane, and 15 percent of this gas is burned in homes.

It's grown clear that gas-powered home appliances, which can be costly to replace, are a significant climate and air quality problem. Environmental scientists haven't been able to account for all the methane they detect in the air, for example in cities like Boston. Some 2.5 percent of the methane used in Boston leaks out from urban areas. This new research suggests a good deal of that comes from leaking stoves.

"Gas appliances can be a pretty big problem," said Maryann Sargent, a research scientist at Harvard University who studies methane leaks. Sargent had no role in the new research.

how the U.S. consumes energy
A chart showing how energy is consumed in the U.S. as of 2020. Credit: U.S. Energy Information Administration

Beyond leaking, there are well-known health risks created by burning methane in stoves. Gas stoves release nitrogen oxides into the air, which are problematic gases in poorly ventilated homes. Inhaling these toxins increases the likelihood of children developing asthma and other respiratory problems, according to an indoor air quality report from the Rocky Mountain Institute, an independent clean energy research group.

In this new research, scientists found families living with poor ventilation or who don't use their cooking hoods can surpass national standards of nitrogen oxides "within a few minutes of stove usage." That's a risk some doctors find unacceptable.

"Gas is associated with health and environmental hazards and reduced social welfare at every stage of its life cycle," medical doctors wrote in The New England Journal of Medicine in 2020. They also recommended that "new residential or commercial gas hookups not be permitted" and "new gas appliances be removed from the market."

If you need a new stove, or can afford one, Sargent encourages people to consider an electric stove, including induction cooktops. This will reduce the air pollution in your home, with the added benefits of lowering the amount of planet-warming gases amassing in the atmosphere. What's more, electric stoves can reduce society's reliance on old gas pipes, which create serious risks for natural gas accidents, and explosions.

You may have heard that cooking on electric stoves is an inferior, more difficult cooking experience. But that's not quite true. Many chefs even prefer modern electric stoves.

"Electric stove technology has greatly improved in the last few decades," explained Brady Seals, a manager at the Rocky Mountain Institute who had no involvement in the new research. As opposed to older electric-coil style stoves, today's smooth top stoves provide an improved cooking experience, and induction stoves (which use electricity to heat pots and pans with magnetic technology) are "perhaps the most exciting new technology," she said. Induction stoves, though not yet popular in the U.S., can boil water in half the time of gas stoves. And they don't leak gas.

"Electric stove technology has greatly improved in the last few decades."

Fossil natural gas, extracted from deep underground in places like Texas and Pennsylvania, doesn't just leak from stoves. The invisible gas often leaks, sometimes prodigiously, from wells. It leaks when it's processed, transported, and stored.

"It's just leaking across the system," said Harvard's Sargent.

Related Video: Here’s how to custom-build a hurricane-resistant house


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