Gas stoves may leak chemicals linked to cancer, evidence shows

Natural gas stoves and ovens can leak harmful chemicals into homes even when not in use.

According to the federal Energy Information Administration, approximately 47 million American households use such devices.

A study published Thursday in the journal Environmental Science and Technology found at least 12 hazardous air pollutants emitted from California gas stoves, including benzene — a chemical known to cause cancer in some people with long-term exposure.

The researchers behind the study — a group from the nonprofit energy research institute PSE Healthy Energy — took gas samples from 159 residential stoves in 16 counties across California. They found benzene in 99% of the samples.

They also calculated a household’s benzene exposure based on the size of the kitchen, the room’s ventilation level, how much of the chemical was present, and whether the stoves leaked when they were turned off. The results showed that the most leaky stoves exposed people to indoor benzene concentrations up to seven times higher than the safe exposure level set by the California Environmental Protection Agency.

Over time, such exposure may increase the risk of blood disorders or reproductive problems, although scientists are still learning how benzene affects health.

The chemical has been more convincingly associated with leukemia, multiple myeloma and non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma. The World Health Organization has said there is no safe level of exposure to benzene when it comes to cancer risk.

But benzene isn’t the only worrisome chemical coming out of stoves, nor are emissions limited to California. Decades of research have suggested that gas stoves are a source of indoor air pollution.

“Anywhere natural gas is leaked is likely to release dangerous air pollutants as well,” said a co-author of the new study, Kelsey Bilsback, a senior scientist at PSE Healthy Energy, during a media call.

Previous research has shown that gas stoves in California homes emit nitrogen oxides, which can irritate the eyes, nose, throat or lungs and cause some people to feel tired, dizzy or short of breath.

Another co-author of the study, Drew Michanowicz, previously identified 21 hazardous air pollutants from gas stoves and outdoor gas pipes in Boston homes. Some of the contaminants were volatile organic compounds: a large group of chemicals, including benzene, that may increase the risk of certain cancers, birth defects or cognitive impairment in people with long-term exposure.

But Michanowicz said some of the lowest concentrations of pollutants in California were still about 10 times higher than the averages of his Boston study. The researchers do not know why the concentrations differ from location to location.

“We think it has something to do with where the gas is coming from,” said Eric Lebel, another co-author of the study. “California has two major pipelines from which it imports gas: one coming from the Rockies and one coming up north from Canada.”

Bilsback said benzene can enter a gas supply through a leak in one of the pipelines or at a storage facility where gas is held. From there, it could be released into the kitchen via a leaky stove.

The presence of benzene in California homes was consistent regardless of their gas suppliers or appliance brands, Lebel said. But the stoves in the North San Fernando and Santa Clarita valleys had the highest levels, followed by those in greater Los Angeles.

“Benzene emissions from a gas stove, even when it is turned off, can in some cases produce concentrations of benzene in your home that are equivalent to living with a smoker,” Lebel said.

Andrea De Vizcaya Ruiz, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, Irvine, who was not involved in the study, said people can be exposed to small amounts of benzene when filling their car’s gas tanks. or sitting by a fireplace, but that exposure to large amounts for long periods of time is worrisome.

“It’s one of the most direct chemicals that causes cancer because it transforms the cells in the bone marrow,” she said.

Pregnant women, infants and young children may be particularly prone to adverse health effects from long-term exposure to benzene, De Vizcaya Ruiz said.

But Lebel said it can be difficult to determine if your home has a leak. Gas companies add compounds to gas that give off the smell of rotten eggs so major leaks don’t go unnoticed, but the odor is usually undetectable unless gas is leaking in high concentrations. In that case, De Vizcaya Ruiz said, people may also start to vomit, feel sleepy or confused, or get a headache.

“If you ever smell gas, leave your house immediately and call the gas company,” Lebel said.

De Vizcaya Ruiz said opening windows can help ventilate rooms better in the short term, which helps reduce potential exposure but doesn’t eliminate the risk or cause. People in California may want to call their gas companies as a precaution to make sure there isn’t a leak, she added.

One of the simplest solutions, Lebel said, is to replace a gas stove with an electric stove.

“Just having a gas appliance in the house can be a potential health risk,” he said. “Completely eliminating gas is the only surefire way to completely eliminate that risk.”

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