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Red Herring

The People Who Really Get Screwed by Gas Stoves

Indoor air pollution should be a tenants’ rights matter, not a culture war among well-off homeowners.

Image shows a lit gas burner, with food residue beneath.
Lewis Geyer/Digital First Media/Boulder Daily Camera/Getty Images

“God. Guns. Gas stoves,” tweeted Republican Congressman Jim Jordan last week. A suggestion on January 9 from Consumer Product Safety Commissioner Richard Trumka that gas stoves might be regulated, due to recent research on health risks, had launched a fierce culture war, with conservatives anointing the methane-leaking appliances as icons of American liberty. “If the maniacs in the White House come for my gas stove,” tweeted Jordan’s congressional colleague Ronny Jackson, “they can pry it from my cold dead hands.”

The fracas about gas stove regulation veered off topic incredibly quickly. After conservatives began treating gas stoves like the new guns, some liberal environmentalists responded with judgmental tweets joking about gas stoves causing cognitive damage in conservative users. Memes about “assault stoves”—like assault rifles—proliferated, evoking our nation’s long-running and deeply felt commitment to preserving space in our homes for objects that can kill our children.

In the past week, many media outlets have labored to debunk this manufactured culture war: The federal government doesn’t, in fact, have any plans to ban gas stoves. Many cities and states are banning gas hookups in new construction—including New York state, whose announcement the same week inspired outrage from conservatives as well as from the restaurant sectorbut no federal state or municipal authority is coming to seize those currently in use. That will never happen.

But as people continue to debate the comparative merits of gas versus electric versus induction, it’s clear we’re still missing the point: For most people, the gas stove isn’t a “Don’t Tread on Me” flag, it’s an appliance, and not everyone has the luxury of opting out of its hazards.

Whenever Republicans can turn a public health debate into a question about whether the government should interfere with the daily activities of wealthy, white homeowners, they do so. And many people fall for it.

Accordingly, the recent gas stove “debate” seemed to center around whether homeowners should have the right to continue using a gas stove in their homes.

But this group of people enjoys plenty of choices and will continue to be able to exercise that one along with many others. If the affluent change their minds about gas stoves being the ultimate kitchen tool, Democrats have made it even easier for them to exercise their freedom to choose a different appliance: The Inflation Reduction Act offers homeowners who wish to switch from gas to electric stoves an $840 rebate.

Renters, however, don’t yet have a right to choose not to be poisoned by this dangerous product.

Gas stoves leak methane into the atmosphere even when they are turned off, so there’s a strong climate case for phasing them out of new buildings. But the risks to human health present even stronger evidence that, regardless of the gas stove’s status as a cultural talisman, it shouldn’t be imposed without consent. Gas stoves cause significant indoor pollution and may be responsible for more than 18 percent of the childhood asthma cases in New York City, where I live. Considering we have plenty of outdoor air pollution here and that the low-income children most likely to suffer from asthma are also more likely to be exposed to highway exhaust and toxic waste, this is a striking statistic.

More than a third of Americans live in rental homes and don’t have the right to refuse appliances that are poisoning them. But renters are even more common among some demographics. Young people are particularly likely to rent, for example. And 58 percent of African Americans and just over half of Latinos rent their homes.

These are exactly the Americans likeliest to suffer from indoor air pollution—from a wide range of sources—and unfortunately, the least likely to benefit from the current direction of anti-gas stove policy. Tenants don’t have any recourse if they want their landlord to replace their gas stove with something safer. And even the growing number of state and local bans on new gas hookups won’t help renters to make their existing homes less toxic. The people most vulnerable to diseases like asthma are less likely to live in new housing.

A few solutions for the low-income have been proposed, Bloomberg reports this week. The Public Health Law Center and other advocates are asking the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development to remove gas stoves from public housing. The Washington, D.C., City Council is proposing a bill to retrofit 30,000 low-income homes with induction stovetops (as well as heat pumps), at no cost to residents.

Those are sound ideas that should be implemented immediately, but the option to switch out the gas stove for one that isn’t poisoning you and your family, if you so desire, ought to become a basic right that all tenants enjoy.

Gas stoves may seem like a consumer choice issue—akin to the SUV-Prius divide of the Obama years or that unfounded rumor that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was trying to take away your hamburgers. But in reality it’s more comparable to the issue of lead paint.

The dangers of lead paint in old buildings have been well known for a long time. Lead poisoning causes cognitive, behavioral, and a range of other health problems in children, which can last a lifetime. Renters’ children have been especially vulnerable. It is, however, possible to require landlords to clean it up—and to disclose the risks to tenants—and doing so has been repeatedly proven to address the problem.

When I was pregnant with my son, our landlords were slow to get rid of the lead paint in our apartment, which was in a New York City building built in 1922. I called them up and threatened them, rudely implying that it would be their fault if my baby was cognitively impaired. But fortunately, the solution did not depend on my personal charms or powers of persuasion because we had the law on our side: New York obligates landlords to mitigate lead exposure in the city’s many old, crumbly buildings.

Tenants have no such protection against gas stoves, even when they have—or are expecting—children. That needs to change. Risks forced upon us don’t represent freedom.