The use of gas in your home is bad for the planet and incredibly hazardous to your health, but we’ve been convinced otherwise.
In the late 1960s, natural gas utilities launched “Operation Attack,” a bold marketing campaign to bring lots more gas stoves into people’s kitchens.
The gas utilities called Operation Attack their “most ambitious advertising and merchandising program ever.” But as it got underway, concerns were becoming public about indoor pollution from gas stoves, including household levels of nitrogen dioxide.
Around the same time, Dr. Carl Shy, a federal public health researcher, was looking into the health effects of nitrogen dioxide. In 1970, Shy published a study showing that families exposed to greater levels of the air pollutant nitrogen dioxide outdoors had higher rates of respiratory illness than families in less-polluted areas. The research caught the attention of the gas utility industry, and they asked Shy for a meeting.
When they met, Shy heard from the gas industry something Americans are now learning about, more than 50 years later: the potential health risks from cooking with gas stoves. “They are the ones who told me that the gas stoves produce nitrogen dioxide because of their high temperature,” says Shy, now 91, at his home near Durham, N.C. “They said the hoods above gas stoves were really not powerful enough to pull out the nitrogen dioxide.”
But in the following decades, the gas industry argued the opposite, asserting that range hoods could clear up this pollution. And it has contended that fumes from cooking food are more of a problem than the fossil fuel pollution of nitrogen dioxide.
The narrative was part of a lengthy campaign by the gas utility industry to popularize gas stoves. Yet as it advertised the appliance, the industry also financed its own research into the potential harms from cooking with gas. Those industry-backed reports confused consumers and muddied the science that regulators relied on about the potential dangers of cooking with gas, according to an investigation by NPR and documents uncovered in a new report from the Climate Investigations Center (CIC), a research and watchdog group.
Along with material collected through its own reporting, NPR reviewed hundreds of pages of publicly available documents gathered by CIC that include scientific studies, trade journal articles and papers from the University of California, San Francisco’s tobacco industry archives.
The documents show that natural gas utilities and their powerful trade group, the American Gas Association (AGA), focused on convincing consumers and regulators that cooking with gas is as risk-free as cooking with electricity. As the scientific evidence grew over time about the health effects from gas stoves, the industry used a playbook echoing the one that tobacco companies employed for decades to fend off regulation. The gas utility industry relied on some of the same strategies, researchers and public relations firms.
The documents show that AGA and utility companies funded studies that countered the emerging research on health risks, sometimes without disclosing their financial support. The industry-backed studies focused on uncertainties in the health research and magnified them, leaving the impression that the science is not clear, even as evidence has accumulated about a link between using gas stoves at home and greater risk of respiratory illnesses.
Research backed by the gas industry generated doubt and controversy over the health effects of stoves that affected policymaking around protecting people’s health. It helped stop efforts to more stringently regulate gas stoves in at least one instance under the Reagan administration. And documents show the research may have helped thwart efforts to strengthen federal nitrogen dioxide pollution standards outdoors, which affects millions of Americans.
Those successful tactics are still relevant today, as state and federal regulators once again examine the health risks that come from cooking with gas, and as natural gas use becomes a flashpoint in the effort to reduce planet-heating emissions.
“I think it’s way past the time that we were doing something about gas stoves,” says Dr. Bernard Goldstein, professor emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh School of Public Health. He researched gas stoves, nitrogen dioxide and indoor air quality in the 1970s. “It has taken almost 50 years since the discovery of negative effects on children of nitrogen dioxide from gas stoves to begin preventive action. We should not wait any longer,” Goldstein says.
“Operation Attack” – a plan to sell more gas stoves
Nitrogen dioxide is a reddish-brown gas and is a key element of smog. It can irritate airways and may contribute to the development of asthma, according to the EPA. Exposure to higher concentrations over short periods also can aggravate respiratory diseases, such as asthma.
As gas utilities faced increasing scientific and regulatory pushback on the health effects of gas stoves, they’ve found themselves fighting on a new front. Natural gas is chiefly made up of methane, a potent planet-heating gas. From the wellhead where gas is produced, through pipelines and to the burner where gas is combusted, the infrastructure leaks methane and worsens climate change. Across the United States, towns are passing laws to limit new construction of natural gas pipelines to homes and buildings, and in places like Ithaca, N.Y., tearing out gas systems completely. Public concern about the health and climate effects of gas stoves now threatens to gut the gas industry.
The AGA maintains that gas stoves are a “minor source” of nitrogen dioxide and it points out that no federal agencies have chosen to regulate the appliances for indoor air emissions. It downplays widely accepted research showing an increased risk of asthma in children who live in homes with gas stoves. And the group promotes research it funded that finds no evidence of health problems.
Presented with findings from NPR and CIC’s reporting, AGA Chief Executive Karen Harbert did not directly deny them. “The natural gas industry has collaborated with subject matter experts and research to develop analysis and scientific studies to inform and educate regulators about the safety of gas cooking appliances,” Harbert wrote in an email to NPR. “The available body of scientific research, including high-quality research and consensus health reviews conducted independently of industry, does not provide sufficient or consistent evidence demonstrating chronic health hazards from natural gas ranges,” Harbert writes.
The gas stove plays an outsized role in the gas utility business. It doesn’t use much natural gas, but house builders and real estate agents say many buyers demand a gas stove. That requires gas utility service to a home, which makes it more likely customers will also use appliances that consume more gas, such as a furnace, water heater and clothes dryer. That’s why some in the industry consider the stove a “gateway appliance.”
The roots of this go back to a nearly century-old “cooking with gas” campaign. In the late 1960s, gas utilities sought to reverse a trend toward electric ranges. “For the first time in the gas industry’s long history, in 1968 the shipment of gas ranges to market fell below 50% of the total range shipments,” W. Morton Jacobs, then president of AGA, warned colleagues a year later in the association’s magazine.
That prompted the AGA to launch “Operation Attack.” The goal of the $1.3 million campaign (about $11 million, adjusted for inflation) was to boost gas range sales 15% in the first year.
As Operation Attack was getting underway, concerns about pollution from gas cooking stoves were growing among scientists and regulators.
A few years earlier, in 1962, at the National Conference on Air Pollution, Dr. Theron Randolph had told colleagues that the gas stove was among the indoor sources of air pollution making his patients ill. Randolph, an allergist and researcher in the Chicago area, said he helped patients initially by relocating them from their homes and later by replacing 800 gas ranges “permanently from the homes of highly susceptible persons.”
In 1970, air quality and smog were in the news and a government advisory committee of utility executives was feeling public pressure “to show what they are doing about pollution.” Committee members suggested at a meeting that “the gas industry take a look at the NOx [nitrogen oxides] problem.”
Randolph’s claims, in particular, drew the interest of the powerful public relations firm Hill and Knowlton. In the 1950s, the firm helped the tobacco industry manufacture controversy and doubt about the link between smoking and cancer.
How gas utilities followed the tobacco strategy
Hill and Knowlton has a long history of working with oil and gas, dating back to the 1950s. At the time, it proposed a “long-range information program” for the industry that included many elements from the firm’s tobacco work, such as funding its own research and then promoting it widely.
Richard Darrow led Hill and Knowlton’s tobacco accounts, and he was also a key player in its work for the gas industry, documents included in the Climate Investigations Center report show. In 1972, at an AGA conference at Disney World in Florida, Darrow explained that he had long consulted for the industry and mentioned Randolph’s claims that “gas appliances are major indoor polluters.” Darrow told utilities they needed to respond. He told them to “mount the massive, consistent, long-range public relations programs necessary to cope with the problems.”
“Do we know enough about pollution within the home? And can we say something useful about this problem that will be of help to the consumer?” Darrow asked, before advising the gas industry to take the lead in explaining to the public how it would handle the pollution issue. “And we should do this before the critics take the floor and demand it.”
Darrow was speaking to an industry that was already adopting tobacco industry tactics. Documents show the AGA was hiring researchers who previously accepted research funding from tobacco companies.
Ralph Mitchell of Battelle Laboratories conducted work for the tobacco industry and had sought funding for research from Philip Morris in 1964 and the Cigar Research Council in 1972. Mitchell and colleagues at Battelle and the Ohio State University reexamined earlier studies that concluded there were health problems linked to use of gas stoves. Using an alternative, and in some cases controversial, analysis technique, Mitchell’s team found “no significant difference in reported respiratory illness between the members of households cooking with gas and those cooking with electricity.”
None of the authors of the 1974 Battelle paper are alive today to answer questions about their work.
“The research in question occurred nearly 50 years ago, and it would be inappropriate to speculate on the researchers’ methods or conclusions,” said Benjamin Johnson, spokesman for Ohio State, in an email to NPR. A Battelle spokesman offered a similar statement and wrote that the organization “conducts research that conforms to the strictest standards of integrity.”