On January 25, 2023

Turn off the gas, bring on the magnets

By Bill McKibben

Editor’s note: Bill McKibben is an internationally known climate activist and writer who lives in Ripton.

I have been arguing for some time now that we’ve reached the point in human history where we should stop setting stuff on fire: coal, oil, biomass, or in this case the “natural gas” that’s burned on cook stoves across the country and around the world. The most important reason is because all that combustion is cooking the planet — but a new study published recently reminded us all of another huge virtue of turning off the gas. It found that 13% of childhood asthma in the country can be attributed to kids living in houses with gas stoves. That’s 650,000 kids — 20 Fenway Parks worth of wheezing young people.

“It’s like having car exhaust in a home,” Brady Seals, a co-author of the research, told the Washington Post. “And we know that children are some of the people spending the most time at home, along with the elderly.”

This isn’t the first study to come up with similar findings. Earlier efforts found that children in households with gas stoves were 42% more likely to come down with asthma. And the effect is magnified in poorer households, which are smaller and less likely to be equipped with adequate ventilation.

It would be cruel to report this news if there weren’t easy ways to fix the problem — after all, smoking cigarettes is optional, but cooking dinner isn’t. Happily, we live at a moment when the problem is easily fixed. The magnetic induction cooktop, like the electric heat pump, is a miraculous piece of technology. It uses…magnets to heat up pots and pans and cook your food. (Don’t ask me how). The cooktop doesn’t get hot, but the food does, that is, the cooktop only gets hot where it is in contact with an appropriate pot (see below). Ever been scorched by a gas flame leaping up around a pot?

And it’s cheap. A single-burner induction cooktop can be found for less than $60. I used such a model quite happily for years until we broke down and installed a full, three-burner induction cooktop. You do need a pan made of an alloy that attracts magnets — I wager that if you take one off your fridge and try sticking it to your pots you’ll likely find a few. (Cast iron works, and stainless steel. Your good stuff — the All-Clad, the Le Creuset — will work).

And it cooks just fine. If you want to boil water, it’s much faster than a gas burner. You can control the heat very accurately; I like to use a wok, and it works for that. It works for everything. And it maintains very low temps much better than gas.

The natural gas industry hates this technology, just like they hate heat pumps; their entire business model is, “we dig stuff up and set it on fire.” One of the classic pieces of recent environmental journalism came from Rebecca Leber in Mother Jones when she showed how the gas lobby was paying social media influencers to insist that somehow cooking over a blue flame produced better food. “#cookingwithgas makes food taste better,” says Camille, an LA-based foodie who poses artfully with her spatula, to her 16,700 followers. This is not true. What is true, as Leber reported, is the following:

Shelly Miller, a University of Colorado, Boulder, environmental engineer who has studied indoor air quality for decades, explains that when a stove burns natural gas — just as when a car burns gasoline — that combustion reaction oxidizes molecules in the air to create nitrogen oxides, which can make us sick. “Cooking,” she says, “is the No. 1 way you’re polluting your home. It is causing respiratory and cardiovascular health problems; it can exacerbate flu and asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in children.”

Some environmental problems are hard to solve. But this one needn’t be. The EPA is considering new regulations, and many communities are banning gas hookups for new buildings. Last month, Commissioner Richard Trumka Jr. of the Consumer Products Safety Commission announced that the agency would issue a request for public comments by March on possible regulations on gas stoves, which he said “could be on the books” by the end of this year. An outright ban on new gas stoves was a “real possibility,” he said.

Which would be great. But there are tens of millions of existing homes, and stoves tend to last a long time. We should make sure that these induction cooktops are available to everyone, including those who can’t afford the $60 price tag; no one can afford to let their kids or grandkids get asthma. If you wouldn’t smoke in your kitchen, then don’t smoke in your kitchen!

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