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Explained | How the U.S. turned a debate on gas stoves into a culture war

As things stand right now, the Biden administration is not coming after gas stoves used by Americans.

January 17, 2023 04:37 pm | Updated January 26, 2023 01:38 pm IST

Image used for representation

Image used for representation | Photo Credit: Getty Images via AFP/Scott Olson

The story so far: It all began with a seemingly innocent study.

In December 2022, a paper published in the International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health said that indoor gas stove used for cooking increased the risk of asthma among children. Such gas stoves are currently prevalent in 35% of American households. According to the study, around 12.7% of current childhood asthma cases in the US are attributable to gas stove use. The study was supported by non-profit organisation RMI and the National Cancer Institute.

What exactly happened?

Shortly after the publication, reports saying that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) was contemplating a ban on gas stoves started doing the rounds. In an interview with Bloomberg published on January 9, CPSC commissioner Richard Trumka Jr. said that products that cannot be made safe “can be banned”, saying that “any option is on the table.”

The statement led to a backlash, mostly from Republican leaders. Quoting Mr. Trumka Jr’s statement, Alabama representative Gary Palmer tweeted, “This type of power should never have been given to unelected bureaucrats and it is time for it to end.”

Senator Ted Cruz did not use many words and instead tweeted a graphic that read, “Come and take it,” with a star, imagery he previously invoked to tell people to continue with Thanksgiving celebrations when Covid-19 was at a peak in 2020. He also wore a mask with it to Joe Biden’s inauguration in January 2021.

A few Democrat leaders, too, expressed concerns about the prospective ban. Senator Joe Manchin called it a “recipe for disaster”.

“The federal government has no business telling American families how to cook their dinner,” he wrote on Twitter.

Where do things stand right now?

The extreme reactions led Mr. Trumka Jr. to tweet a clarification. “To be clear, CPSC isn’t coming for anyone’s gas stoves. Regulations apply to new products,” he wrote on Twitter, a day after his interview was published.

CPSC chairman Alexander Hoehn-Saric also issued a statement on Twitter, saying that the commission was neither looking at a ban on gas stoves nor has the “proceeding to do so”.

However, this was not the first time CPSC has analysed the ill effects of gas stoves. A CPSC meeting held in October 2022 listed “vigorous research” on hazards from gas stoves as an agenda for financial year 2023.

In December, Congresspersons and senators including Elizabeth Warren, Cory A. Booker, and others wrote a letter to CPSC chairman Alexander Hoehn-Saric, requesting him to take steps to counter the hazardous impact of gas stoves.

As things stand right now, the Biden administration is not coming after gas stoves used by Americans. Although the CPSC plans to research the health hazards posed by gas stoves, no blanket ban is in sight.

A culture war over stoves?

Social media has weighed in, calling the debate over gas stoves versus electric stoves America’s latest “culture war”.

According to the European Centre for Populism Studies (ECPS), a culture war is defined as a conflict between social groups and the struggle for dominance of their beliefs and values.

Using a Statista graphic, a Twitter user also pointed out that most Americans are already using electric stoves, questioning the legitimacy of the said “culture war”.

No more gas stoves in new constructions

In May 2022, California voted to ban most gas appliances in newly-constructed buildings, the Los Angeles Times reported.

A New York City Council law enacted in 2021 prohibits the “combustion of substances with certain emissions profiles in buildings within the city”. The law also directs the Commissioner of Buildings to deny construction permits to buildings that require the combustion of these substances, with some exceptions.

Another incentive for Americans to move towards electric stoves is the Biden administration’s Inflation Reduction Act. Passed in August 2022, this Act provides a tax deduction to low and middle-income households which go electric and seeks to lower the energy bills of American households.

Are indoor gas stoves really harmful?

Yes. But this is not a new finding. Research shows that natural gas stoves release methane and oxides of nitrogen. These pollutants are harmful and cause respiratory disorders and diseases of varying intensities. One published in ACS Publications showed that annual methane emissions from all gas stoves in U.S. homes have a climate impact comparable to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 5,00,000 cars, within a 20-year timeframe. Levels of nitric oxide and nitrogen dioxide were analysed in 32 homes and data was found to be linearly related to the amount of natural gas burned.

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