Health and Healthcare Systems

Gas stoves might be even worse for health and planet than we thought

A gas stove.

Methane produced from domestic cooking in the US has a similar environmental impact as 50,000 cars, according to researchers. Image: Unsplash/ Kwon Who

Charlotte Edmond
Senior Writer, Forum Agenda
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This article is part of: Centre for Health and Healthcare

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  • Stanford study highlights lesser-known dangers of pollution from cooking processes.
  • Methane produced from domestic cooking in the US has a similar environmental impact as 500,000 cars, according to researchers
  • But this is a global problem and not enough is being done to enable access for all to clean cooking.
  • Around 4 million people die prematurely from household pollution, while a third of the world are still cooking on open fires and basic stoves.
  • Global clean-fuel programmes are helping improve access, but progress is slow.

As anyone who’s ever had a slip with a knife or felt the splash of hot oil will tell you, cooking can be a risky business. But away from injuries and accidents there is one thing in your kitchen that poses a particular risk - the stove.

A new study from Stanford University suggests that the pollutants from natural-gas-burning stoves are an underestimated source of greenhouse gas emissions. The methane leaking from domestic cooking in the US has the equivalent climate impact of 500,000 cars, researchers say.

This methane - released in addition to the carbon dioxide emitted as the gas burns - contributes about a third as much warming again as the CO2 alone. Methane is a much shorter-lived but significantly more potent greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.

Natural-gas-fired home cooking can also expose users to other respiratory disease-causing pollutants. As well as affecting indoor air quality, it contributes to the production of ozone, which is linked to 1 million premature deaths each year through respiratory disease, the Stanford research suggests.

Methane contributes to the production of ozone, which is toxic to plant and animal life.
Methane contributes to the production of ozone, which is toxic to plant and animal life. Image: Climate and Clean Air Coalition

Cooking pollution is a global problem

It’s not just natural-gas stoves that are causing a problem. Gases released from cooking are a significant source of air pollution.

Around a third of the world’s population cook using open fires or simple kerosene, coal- or biomass-burning stoves, according to the World Health Organization. And each year close to 4 million people die prematurely from illnesses linked to household air pollution caused by cooking on inefficient heat sources like these.

Is the fuel you use clean or polluting?
Is the fuel you use clean or polluting? Image: Nature Communications

One of the major problems are small soot particles that can penetrate deep into the lungs - in poorly ventilated areas they can be up to 100 times above the safe limit for fine particulate matter.

It can be a particular problem for women and children, who typically spend a lot of time at the hearth. Close to half of global pneumonia deaths in children under five are as a result of soot inhalation.

Other illnesses that can be caused by household air pollution include stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer.

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What's the World Economic Forum doing about the transition to clean energy?

The pace of change is slow

Clean energy provision is one of the United Nation’s key Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. But without significant policy intervention, the number of people lacking access to such fuels is unlikely to change significantly in the next few years.

Many people in sub-Saharan Africa continue to rely on polluting fuel sources for cooking.
Many people in sub-Saharan Africa continue to rely on polluting fuel sources for cooking. Image: WHO
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The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that the number of people without the use of clean cooking fuels has been decreasing slowly and now sits at around 2.6 billion. In India and China, more than 450 million people have gained access to clean cooking fuels since 2010 - as a result of liquified petroleum gas programmes and clean-air policies, the agency notes.

But the problem in sub-Saharan Africa remains particularly acute, with only 17% of people having access to clean cooking. And the situation is worsening, as efforts lag population growth.

The COVID-19 pandemic has also caused progress to falter, the IEA says, but adds that the use of other technologies is being explored. Solar PV and battery powered electric pressure cookers, for example, could provide a clean, standalone solution that can be used anywhere and won't put pressure on local distribution grids.

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Health and Healthcare SystemsNature and Biodiversity
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