Cooking with Gas

Roman Mars [00:00:00] This is 99% Invisible. I’m Roman Mars. Back in January, Bloomberg News published a story quoting an obscure government official named Richard Trumka Jr. He works with the Consumer Product Safety Commission, which regulates stuff like furniture and electronics and household appliances. Basically, the agency is supposed to make sure that the stuff we buy is safe and won’t kill us or make us sick. The Bloomberg story talked about how a growing body of research shows that gas stoves are really bad for indoor air quality. They let off pollutants like nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide. And they’ve been linked to heart problems, cancer, and asthma. And in this story, Trumka said the government would look into it and maybe recommend some regulations on the appliance. Within days, the U.S. went batshit crazy, and gas stoves were all over the news. They had become the subject of the latest skirmish in our seemingly never-ending culture war. 

Newscaster #1 [00:01:02] The safety of in-home gas stoves is sparking a political battle in Washington. 

Ronny Jackson [00:01:06] If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold, dead hands.

Cook [00:01:13] I’m a cook. Nobody’s going to tell me I can’t cook with gas. First of all, any good cook cooks with gas. 

Newscaster #2 [00:01:18] Democrats are coming for your kitchen appliances. 

Joe Manchin [00:01:20] The federal government has no business telling American families how to cook their dinner. 

Roman Mars [00:01:25] I was a little surprised by the level of emotion generated by this common household appliance. But it turns out there is a long and well-documented history that explains our current moment. The natural gas industry has spent the past hundred years selling Americans on the gas stove and trying to convince us that it is superior than the electric alternative–that it’s classier, more functional, and then it just cooks our food better. Alongside that full bore advertising campaign. The gas industry has waged another quieter battle, mostly beyond the view of the public. They’ve worked for decades to obscure and dispute what scientists increasingly know is true. Gas stoves are bad for our health. No matter how much we love that little “click, click, click, click, woosh” sound, which is admittedly a really great sound. Today, we’re going to look at those parallel histories and understand how we got to this place and why Americans have so many feelings about ourselves. Our guide today is Rebecca Leber. She’s a climate reporter who’s worked for Mother Jones, Grist and Vox. And she’s done a lot of work to unearth the history of the gas stove and what its popularity means for our health and the climate. Okay, Rebecca. Before we get into the history, I want to talk about the gas stove that you have in your apartment. I am curious, do you have any strong feelings about it? 

Rebecca Leber [00:02:49] I am by no means a great cook. I am pretty casual about it, but I do think I bought into this myth around the gas stove before I started reporting on this. I think I just had this vague sense that cooking with gas was just better. It’s a fact. It’s better than electric cooking. And now that I am reconsidering all of that, I realize how long I’ve been exposed to this imagery around expensive, huge ranges that are in these gleaming, large homes. It’s just this idea of a status symbol. And while I don’t know if I have the same visceral reaction that some people do to using a flame when cooking, I realize I was influenced by this larger narrative around gas cooking, and it led me down this rabbit hole of investigating why this is just taken as a matter of fact–that gas cooking is superior. 

Roman Mars [00:03:46] So let’s talk a little bit about that narrative and how it came to be. How far back can you trace the gas industry’s push for gas stoves? And also, why did they feel like they even had to advertise? Like, what were they up against? 

Rebecca Leber [00:03:59] So this was the part I had the most fun doing because it took a lot of archival research, going through newspapers in the last century to dig out ads showing how the industry was hiring celebrities of the time to promote gas appliances. I’d say start looking at the early 20th century. That’s when gas was competing with wood fired appliances and coal fired appliances and electricity. So, the gas industry had to find an edge and also market and convince consumers that this was the product to invest in. 

Roman Mars [00:04:35] Okay. So, this is a familiar story in a lot of ways. They’re fighting for market share. And so, of course, they turn to advertising. And there’s one example that you write about, which is the phrase “cooking with gas” or “now we’re cooking with gas.” Can you tell me about the origins of that phrase? 

Rebecca Leber [00:04:50] Yeah, this is a great story because this originated from the gas industry itself. In the 1930s, an American Gas Association executive helped plant the story with the comedian Bob Hope’s writers, so it became a part of his routine and really popularized this phrase that now we see everywhere. I was watching a TV show not long ago that had this in their writing. There is a very old Daffy Duck cartoon that also used “now you’re cooking with gas,” and it’s supposed to mean “now you’re really on fire.”

Daffy Duck [00:05:28] Say, now you’re cooking with gas. 

Rebecca Leber [00:05:34] So this is just one of those ways that we have really normalized gas as the superior product–that this is just part of our everyday language. And it originated with a gas industry executive. 

Roman Mars [00:05:47] And so how did the industry’s advertising strategy change over time, you know, beyond the “now we’re cooking with gas?” 

Rebecca Leber [00:05:53] Well, we see this early inception of influencer campaigns before there were really influencers. In the 1950s, the gas industry had this ad that featured actors as housewives touting their all-gas kitchen and convincing their husbands to buy them new appliances. 

Housewife [00:06:13] By the way, did you know that this kitchen won an award from the Woman’s Home Companion? And really, they thought of everything. I just love the convenience and modern styling of this built-in gas range…

Rebecca Leber [00:06:25] So there’s plenty of examples like this throughout the decades. But one of my favorite examples was this 1980s era ad that I kind of stumbled along on YouTube. Just like the 1950s commercial starring housewives was very much of its era, this 1980s ad is this incredibly cringeworthy rap about gas cooking. 

Gas Cooking Rap [00:06:49] Cooking with gas, cooking with gas. We all cook better when we’re cooking with gas. Gas is so hot. It’s not on when it’s off. It’s the only way to cook. That’s what we were taught. I cook with gas because the cost is much less than electricity. Do you want to take a guess? Well, it’s three times less in the east or west. So, remember those figures when it’s time to take a test. I cook with gas because broiling is so clean the flame consumes the smoke and grease. You know what I mean? And when I bake a pie to put on the sill, my self-cleaning oven takes care of any spill. Cooking with gas. Cooking with gas. We all cook better when we’re cooking with gas…

Roman Mars [00:07:29] Oh my Lord. 

Rebecca Leber [00:07:30] Yeah. This is always a crowd favorite. It’s incredible. 

Roman Mars [00:07:35] And this really worked. I mean, the outcome of this advertising was that, you know, gas stoves became pretty popular. 

Rebecca Leber [00:07:42] The sales pitch definitely worked. Gas went from practically nonexistent to 30% during the 1970s. And in 2019, it grew to about 50% of single-family American homes. It’s even more common when you’re talking about some of the most populous cities in states like California, New York, and Illinois. There we see well over 70% of homes using gas for cooking. 

Roman Mars [00:08:13] But at the same time that the gas industry was pushing heavily for people to adopt gas stoves, they were also realizing that there might be some problems with them, right? So, there’s this kind of parallel history of the industry learning about the health effects of stoves and fighting off the regulation. 

Rebecca Leber [00:08:29] There were concerns from the very start. We see in the early 1900s examples at least of carbon monoxide poisoning. But over the decades, as gas grew, there was a lot more scrutiny. So, starting around the 1950s, 1960s, more scientific papers come out looking at some of these specific pollutants we’re talking about. By the 1970s and definitely the 1980s, it became very clear this was an area worth studying and that there was a lot of nuanced research to be done. A growing concern was that this could be causing asthma in children. And the big question was how much? 

Roman Mars [00:09:07] As it was becoming more and more clear that there was a problem here, did this trigger anything as to how to regulate it, how to, you know, make it safer? 

Rebecca Leber [00:09:17] Yeah, what’s incredible is about 40 years ago, we had this déjà vu debate over indoor air quality and gas. So, in the 1980s, indoor air quality was just growing as a concern. Of course, there was more awareness around things like secondhand smoke, but gas was also getting more scrutiny. So, Congress held some hearings around air quality, and gas was one of the topics that would come up. And the Consumer Product Safety Commission started to look at this and whether this was something that was worth regulating. So, the Consumer Product Safety Commission asked the EPA about the effects of pollutants like nitrogen dioxide. And these agencies were in this dialogue around what are the health risks when it comes to gas cooking. And what’s wild here is they were on the cusp of possible regulation, but the EPA pointed out that they had a lot of questions that remained that they hoped scientists would answer in the future. And somehow in this back and forth, the whole thing was dropped. This also coincides with the Reagan administration that was not known for loving regulation in general. So, in all this fuss, we just see this issue really recede from popular discourse until the last few years, when this became a hot topic again. 

Roman Mars [00:10:36] From what I gather in your answer–is it just kind of fizzled out? Or was there, like, you know, some kind of shot to the heart when it came to the idea of regulation? 

Rebecca Leber [00:10:44] It’s a great question. I wish I had a complete answer here, but it was a mix. I think some of it fizzled out and dropped from public view. Another piece, though, was how the industry responded. You see a lot of parallels here between the gas industry and tobacco industry and how it delayed and disputed decades of scientific concerns around the risks of smoking. And the gas industry did something pretty similar to dispute the effects from these emissions–from gas cooking and just burning gas at large. And you see a lot of focus from them on the uncertainty and that there are questions that need to be answered. But even when we get those studies and we learn more of those answers, the industry has really pounced on that as the lack of regulation is proof that this is a product that’s safe. 

Roman Mars [00:11:35] But like a regulation, they thought, is proof that it is safe. But I find this very maddening about science and policy and public health. You know, scientists do what scientists do, which is, like, if you ask them a question and they don’t know the answer, they’ll say, “I don’t know the answer.” You know, whereas everyone else speaks with great authority. 

Rebecca Leber [00:11:56] Yeah, I will say in the 1980s, a lot of these questions existed, but we’ve gotten, especially in the last few years, a lot more answers. And you are talking about asthma, lung problems, cardiovascular disease–and all of these problems can be a lot more pronounced in children who have small growing lungs and the elderly and people with some preexisting conditions. There’s also a lot of pollutants that are of concern that we’re getting even more research on. So, one we’ve been talking about is nitrogen dioxide, which is linked to all of those health effects that I described, especially asthma. But there’s also carbon monoxide that I think most people are familiar with. There’s benzene, which is a carcinogen. And there was a recent study that actually said that the benzene produced by the stove can exceed what you see in secondhand smoke. 

Roman Mars [00:12:51] Wow. 

Rebecca Leber [00:12:52] The other thing to mention is how that same pollution is contributing to poor air quality outside. These are the kinds of pollutants that interact and help to form ozone, which is also called smog. This is methane that we’re burning. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is a potent climate pollutant. So, we’re not just talking about air pollution here. We’re talking about how gas appliances and gas infrastructure help contribute to global warming. 

Roman Mars [00:13:22] One point the gas industry makes is that gas stoves are safe if you just use proper ventilation like a range hood. What do you say to that idea? 

Rebecca Leber [00:13:30] Ventilation is really important. And it’s true that any kind of cooking can produce something called particulate matter. So, ventilation is important advice when it comes to any kind of cooking, and especially when you’re using the gas stove. But there are some caveats here because this doesn’t work as a one size fits all advice. The gold standard for ventilation would be having a ducted range hood, which basically takes that dirty air and vents it outside. But scientists have started unpacking this question of how effective these hoods really are. And there is a wide range. Some just don’t have a powerful fan. The filter might be dirty. Some people also just have user error where they aren’t turning it on when they cook. Lots of homes don’t even have these hoods. I don’t. So instead, I have to open a window to try to get some air circulation in my home. So, it’s unfortunately not as easy as just saying, “Everyone, ventilate,” because not everyone has access, and we don’t even have great data on this. Ventilation is important, and it can cut the risk, but it doesn’t work for everyone. 

Roman Mars [00:14:45] So these federal agencies have been slow to regulate, but we are starting to see some municipalities take some action. Can you talk about some of the regulations that we’ve started to see over the past few years when it comes to gas stoves? 

Rebecca Leber [00:14:56] Yeah, this issue really has taken off on a local level. 

Newscaster #3 [00:15:00] Cooking with gas could become a thing of the past. 13 cities and one county in California have enacted new zoning codes encouraging or requiring all electric for new construction. That means no natural gas lines to new homes and apartments…

Rebecca Leber [00:15:17] The number is over 100 municipalities now that have taken some kind of action to phase out gas in their new construction. So, this has spread far beyond California. There are cities in Washington State, Oregon, and Massachusetts that have all taken action around gas. And we’re actually seeing the snowball because now states are taking action. New York became the first state in the country to phase out gas in new construction. And California has been looking at this from the air quality perspective. Illinois has had an interesting bill in the works where they would have manufacturers label gas stoves with some kind of danger warning. So, there’s been a lot of interesting approaches here that are all really fresh and new and ongoing. So, I think when we revisit this in just a few months, we would see a very different landscape than even now. 

Roman Mars [00:16:09] And so what is the argument for the regulation? What are they centering on? Are they centering around indoor air quality, or are they centering around climate change and non-reliance on fossil fuels? What is the center of the argument when it comes to regulation? 

Rebecca Leber [00:16:23] Yeah, this is a great distinction because there’s a couple parallel tracks. A lot of the regulation we’re seeing is looking at this from a climate perspective, saying, “We need to phase out a big source of our climate pollution and that would entail stopping building new pipelines to our buildings.” So, in New York, buildings are the biggest source of their climate pollution. So, this is significant. And by phasing out gas and new construction, we start to make that transition. But there’s also this parallel track where we’re talking about health concerns and air quality, and that has been moving a lot more slowly. And California has looked at this question. Some states are starting to look at this. But when it comes to regulation, that’s not as far along as when we’re looking at this from a climate perspective. 

Roman Mars [00:17:13] And what has been the gas industry’s response this time around to some more heightened regulation on the more local level? 

Rebecca Leber [00:17:21] So the gas industry has fought this pretty hard at the local level. They’ve launched these anti-electrification campaigns throughout the country, bringing really deep resources to pretty local fights. In California, there were examples of the industry sending out robotexts warning that their gas stoves were going to be ripped out, which was untrue. One example that emerged in my reporting was a PR agency that went on next door to post and warn locals that their gas dogs were being taken away to tell them to go protest. And we’re seeing versions of this fight throughout the country. But this is also escalating where we see at the state level, a lot of Republican states have passed legislation blocking cities and municipalities from banning gas appliances in their new construction. So, we’re seeing this fight get bigger and bigger. And we’re going to get into the federal fight because a few months ago, this just exploded on a national stage, too. 

Roman Mars [00:18:22] Yeah. Okay, let’s talk a little bit about this explosion on the national stage. The political valence of this is kind of fascinating to me–about what side you’re on. And I guess if it comes to regulation versus nonregulation, that sort of goes along traditional lines. But when it comes to, like, people who have gas stoves versus people who have electric stoves, you know, I grew up in the rural south–there was no gas stoves at all. When I lived in rich parts of the country–you know, cities and stuff–they had gas stoves galore. Are you surprised about this as a part of the culture war, or does this just make sense to you? 

Rebecca Leber [00:19:01] It makes a lot of sense, I think, just because I’ve reported on this for a few years now. I know from my reporting that when I first raised these ideas and scientific reports around air quality concerns, there was such a visceral reaction from people who either ran to the defense of the stove or were deeply concerned and ready to rip it out of their home. So, I know that this does touch a nerve for a lot of people–and for good reason. You’re talking about an intimate environment in your kitchen and your own health. I was surprised by the timing of this debate because this really blew up more of a fear of regulation than actual regulation. And it ties into this political culture war because what we’ve seen is that some of the people running to the defense of the stove just don’t have gas stoves. So, some of my favorite examples–like Florida–you saw Governor Ron DeSantis defend the gas stove. 

Ron DeSantis [00:20:02] And I just want to, you know, make it clear to everybody, you know, when we say, “Don’t tread on Florida,” or “Let us alone,” we mean that, including on your gas stoves! You’re not taking our gas stoves away from us!! That is your choice! And I know many people who cook a lot do not want to part with their gas stoves. And so, we’re going to stand up for that…

Rebecca Leber [00:20:27] But in Florida, gas cooking is only 8% of households, so quite small. So, there is this blue/red divide here. Bluer parts of the country have a lot more gas. So, we’re talking about California, New York, Illinois, and Massachusetts are really big gas states. And those are also states that are reliably blue and have a population that is deeply concerned about climate change, and you have political leaders who are interested in regulation and interested in moving forward on climate change. So, it turns out this is pretty bad for the natural gas industry that this has become a culture war because the demographics don’t really work out in its favor if blue states turn their back on gas. 

Roman Mars [00:21:13] I feel like a lot of the people are fighting because a stove is kind of intimate. It’s in the kitchen, you cook with it, you use it in a certain way, you use it to make food, but, like, if you wrote an article about–I don’t know–that there’s a possible ban on your water heater not getting gas versus being electric, nobody would care. Does that seem true to you? 

Rebecca Leber [00:21:36] Yeah, that’s a great point because water heaters aren’t innocent here. They do also cause problems. And when we’re talking about gas cooking, I’m also talking about a lot of other gas appliances that have many of the same problems. But yeah–something like a water heater. It’s so different from the gas stove because it’s kind of hidden. You’re not interacting with that. I think if it’s working as I should, you shouldn’t ever think about it. And the gas stove, though, is something you’re using every day or however often you cook, and it’s something you’re interacting with. Cooking has this emotional resonance, so it just hits very differently than a water heater. But the gas industry also recognizes that, and that’s why we see these influencer campaigns throughout the years. It knows the public has an emotional attachment to the stove, but it doesn’t have that attachment to a water heater. And it’s using it; it’s using it as this wedge to drive people who might otherwise be all for climate action to object to electrification because they don’t want to lose that stove. So, it’s this important emotional issue for both sides. 

Roman Mars [00:22:56] Coming up after the break, we talk more with Rebecca Leber about the wider fight for electrification, why it’s a powerful climate solution, and why it’s hard for consumers to change from gas to electric. I’m back with Rebecca Leber. Rebecca, I want to ask about electrification because ultimately to lower carbon emissions, we have to make the switch away from combustion fossil fuels and towards electricity that runs on cleaner energy sources, like wind and solar. And this gets tricky because gas is part of our infrastructure. Like, once it’s piped into your house, it is in your house. So, could you talk about some of the hurdles that people face when it comes to swapping out their gas stoves for electric ones? 

Rebecca Leber [00:23:50] So when we’re talking about electric cooking, the modern equivalent is induction. It’s not the coils that were common decades ago that no one really likes. But induction works a little differently. It is heating the pan directly, so the surface doesn’t actually get hot. And a lot of people who have transitioned to induction love it. And there’s advantages to it and some disadvantages if you’re comparing it one to one to gas. The learning curve to induction is not that big. I’ve talked to plenty of people who have installed induction in their kitchens, and they love it. It heats water super-fast, and they don’t have to worry about burning themselves. The bigger problems when it comes to transitioning to electric cooking–it’s the infrastructure challenge because depending on your home, you might have to change your circuit breaker. You might have to deal with a condo association that has certain restrictions on renovations. You might be dealing with all these different kinds of challenges, which is why changing the home is such a complicated area because it’s such an individual circumstance. I do think this is going to get easier over the next few years. Part of that is because there are new tax breaks and incentives through the Inflation Reduction Act passed last year that will help to bring down the cost of some of these home renovations. One other thing just to mention is it doesn’t always require a huge renovation to change your kitchen to more electric appliances. So, I mentioned I’m a renter. And even using my toaster oven and plugging that in instead of using my oven–that’s something I do as an alternative. And for renters especially a solution could be buying an induction plugin stovetop. You just kind of put it on top of your stove and plug it into the wall and it works kind of like a hot plate. That’s another renter friendly solution just to paint a picture that this can have a diverse array of solutions. 

Roman Mars [00:25:52] I mean, what is interesting to me is that in a way, the gas industry is completely right to be fearful because there are lots of patches and solutions to provide electrification. But if a gas pipe isn’t brought into a building, that’s the end of the game for them. 

Rebecca Leber [00:26:13] Yeah, the new construction is really important because if we’re banning gas in new construction, that signals that this is an industry on the decline. It’s very important for the gas industry that it doesn’t go the way of coal where we consider this a fuel of the past. But if gas is blocked in new construction, it’s signaling exactly that–that this is an industry that’s shrinking with this shrinking customer base. And that worries not just the gas industry but its investors and banks. It causes a lot bigger problems. And that’s why this fight over new construction is really looming over the industry. This is hugely important for its future. 

Roman Mars [00:26:53] And as a person who covers this, do you expect to see more state or even federal bans on gas stoves? Is this going to fizzle out the way it did 40 years ago, or do you expect it to have a little bit more momentum? 

Rebecca Leber [00:27:04] I definitely think it has more momentum. I think we’ve passed this turning point here and we’re on a clock for addressing climate change here, too. So, I think the entire context of this is very different. I would say, though, that what to expect is not necessarily just bans. I think this could take a lot of different shapes. I think what the Biden administration is actually focused on is pushing voluntary consumer incentives, so pushing electrification and not mandating it. I think some states we’re seeing take different approaches. Like I mentioned, maybe we’ll see warning labels on gas. It’s not a one size solution, but I do expect a lot more movement here. 

Roman Mars [00:27:48] Rebecca, thank you so much for talking with us, and thanks so much for your reporting. I appreciate it. 

Rebecca Leber [00:27:52] Thank you. 

Roman Mars [00:27:55] 99% Invisible was produced this week by Jeyca Maldonado-Medina. Edited by Delaney Hall. Sound mix by Dara Hirsch. Original music by our director of sound, Swan Real. Kurt Kohlstedt is the digital director. The rest of the team includes Chris Berube, Christopher Johnson, Jayson De Leon, Emmett FitzGerald, Vivian Le, Lasha Madan, Kelly Prime, Joe Rosenberg, and me, Roman Mars. Special thanks this week to Charlie Spatz at the Energy and Policy Institute. The 99% Invisible logo was created by Stefan Lawrence. We are part of the Stitcher and SiriusXM Podcast Family, now headquartered six blocks north in the Pandora building… in beautiful… uptown… Oakland, California. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can find the show and join discussions about the show on Facebook. You can tweet me @romanmars and the show @99piorg. We’re on Instagram and Reddit, too. You can find links to other Stitcher shows I love as well as every past episode of 99PI at Click, click, click, click. Woosh. 

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