Energy Analysis

Cooking with gas: A gaslit toxic health hazard 

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(Cropped 'Cooking with gas' image by Mark Bonica | Flickr and child with inhaler by Phyllis Buchanan | Wikimedia Commons)

Neither clean nor green, it turns out lauded natural gas is a toxic mix of harmful chemicals that cause asthma and other chronic breathing disorders, anaemia and cancer. Dr David Shearman explains why we should remove gas from our homes.

THIS IS A PLEA to you based on the health risks to you and your children if you use gas in your home.

When the gas burns on your cooker or heater, a cocktail of harmful chemicals, gases and particles are produced in the confines of your kitchen which are inhaled into your lungs.

Nitrogen dioxide gases are produced during this burning which irritates the respiratory airways to cause asthma, attacks in existing asthmatic patients and in other chronic breathing disorders. It is especially harmful to the developing lungs of children. The level of nitrogen dioxide in the kitchen during cooking is often above the standard set by the World Health Organisation.

Gas burning also produces particulates, tiny particles too small to see which irritate the lungs and the smallest ones (PM2.5) are absorbed into the bloodstream with damage to the brain, heart and other organs.

Burning gas also produces formaldehyde, a carcinogenic gaseous pollutant which also irritates the lungs.

All these toxic gases and particles will be partially removed by range hoods which should be turned on before the flame is lit.

These findings on ill health caused by gas cookers are reported in detail by researchers at Stanford University USA and have been confirmed in Australia by the Menzies Institute for Medical Research and the Centre for Air Pollution, Energy and Health Research (CAR).

A further worrying study published last month by the Harvard Public Health School showed that the natural methane gas entering the home contains small amounts of 21 chemicals toxic to humans including benzene, which is linked to anaemia and cancer. These are released into the room when the gas is turned on just before the stove is lit and also because all stoves and heaters have low-level leaks of methane and its accompanying toxins.

One author of the Harvard study pointed out that gas is sourced directly from underground drilling and is in effect piped directly into your house kitchen without any processing to remove these toxic chemicals.

For decades our society has been misled by the “clean and green product” sold to us by powerful fossil fuel interests. Since a report in the leading medical journal The Lancet in 1996, we have known that women cooking with gas in the UK contracted more respiratory diseases; men did not because they (generally) didn’t do the cooking!

In 2010, a study of 400 primary school students attending 22 schools in New South Wales, showed that they experienced increased coughing and wheezing because of exposure to unflued gas heaters in the classroom. There is now a policy to remove the heaters from schools. Today we know that 12 per cent of cases of childhood asthma are linked to exposure to gas cooking stoves.

How can it be that previous governments have ignored this serious health issue? It was subsumed in the Morrison Government's foolish gas-led recovery and continued pattern of silent negligence over the ill health and deaths from pollution by coal-fired power stations and vehicle emissions.

With adequate funding stopping gas use in houses joins numerous other public health measures that could reduce the burden on overwhelmed general practitioners and hospital services, which cost $100 billion a year compared to the pittance of $2 billion spent to prevent disease by our public health services.

Victoria's Gas Substitution Roadmap, driving our state to net zero emissions” is an important initiative to reduce the 17.5 per cent of emissions coming from gas. Over 2 million Victorians use gas in their homes and businesses – more than any other state or territory. The roadmap says little about the harms of pollution which cause respiratory disease, yet this would provide the most important motive for families to abandon gas.

The health message is even more important because the most recent Energy Consumer Sentiment & Behaviour Survey shows increasing dissatisfaction with electricity services due to rising costs and insecurity caused by the previous Federal Government’s incompetence, whereas there is high satisfaction with gas services.

The health message which must be conveyed to households is: change immediately to electricity if you can afford it. This applies particularly to households with children and when there are others with respiratory diseases.

If you cannot afford to change to electricity look for help under the fact sheets of the Victorian Roadmap for financial help. Finding a rental property is difficult enough without rejecting one because it has gas, but keep the option in your choice of property.

This month, the Victorian Government removed the mandate for gas connections to new housing developments — other states must follow quickly.  

There is another important message and this is conveyed by the Roadmap.

Abandoning household gas in favour of electricity, the long-term cheaper option, is vital because methane is the most potent greenhouse gas and must be significantly reduced throughout the world before 2030 to give humanity some chance of curbing global warming, which is the greatest public health issue of our time. You will be doing your bit for the world’s children as well as your own.

Dr David Shearman AM is Emeritus Professor of Medicine at Adelaide University and the co-founder of Doctors for the Environment Australia.

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