About 47 million people in the United States use gas stoves and ovens, which a recent study shows could be leaking chemicals that harm health even when the appliances are turned off.
For the study, researchers from the nonprofit energy science and policy research institute PSE Healthy Energy investigated residences in California to determine how much impact residential gas appliances have on air quality within the home.
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How Much Do Gas Appliances Affect Indoor Air Quality?
The researchers took unburned gas samples from 159 stoves in 16 counties throughout California. They accounted for room size, ventilation, and the chemical content of the gas entering the home.
The researchers found that “of the 10 most commonly detected pollutants, six are federally-designated hazardous air pollutants under the Clean Air Act.”
It has long been known that gas stoves are one of the causes of indoor air pollution.
“Anywhere natural gas is leaked, hazardous air pollutants are likely being released, as well,” said Kelsey Bilsback, a senior scientist at PSE Healthy Energy and a co-author of the study.
The study revealed “even low-level gas leaks from kitchen stoves when they are off can generate benzene concentrations in homes up to seven times California’s recommended exposure limit. These concentrations are in addition to benzene leaks that may occur when the stove is in use.”
Another study that examined Boston homes reported similar findings. But a researcher from that study said, “some of the lowest concentrations of pollutants in California were still about 10 times higher than the averages from his Boston study.”
“We think it has something to do with where the gas is being sourced from,” said Eric Lebel, another co-author of the PSE Healthy Energy study. “California has two major pipelines where it imports gas from: one coming from the Rockies and then one coming in from the north from Canada.”
A summary of the research said “concentrations of pollutants varied throughout the state, with the highest levels found in Los Angeles County. Exceptionally high benzene concentrations were observed in the North San Fernando and Santa Clarita Valleys.”
How Dangerous Is Benzene?
Even when a gas appliance is off, it can potentially emit levels of benzene equivalent to living with a smoker, Lebel said.
Of the 12 risky chemicals researchers found released by gas appliances, benzene is of particular concern. With long-term exposure, it is known to cause cancer. It has been linked to leukemia, multiple myeloma, and non-Hodgkin lymphoma, and the World Health Organization has stated any exposure to benzene is a health hazard.
Andrea De Vizcaya Ruiz, an associate professor of environmental and occupational health at the University of California, Irvine, who did not participate in the PSE Healthy Energy study, said that although people are exposed to benzene in small amounts when filling their car at the gas station or when sitting by an open fire, it is long-term exposure to benzene that is of concern.
“It’s one of the most direct chemicals that induces cancer, because it transforms the cells in the bone marrow,” she said. Pregnant women and young children might be especially vulnerable, she added.
How Can You Limit Your Exposure to Benzene Exposure?
It can be difficult to detect a small leak in gas appliances, according to Lebel. Additives in residential gas give off a “rotten egg smell” to warn of a major leak but homeowners would have to call the gas company to uncover any smaller leaks.
Opening windows to ventilate the room can help, but this does not deal with the cause of the problem.
Lebel suggested the easiest way to limit your risk of being exposed to benzene is to replace your gas stove with an electric one. “Just having a gas appliance in your house can be a potential health risk. Eliminating gas altogether is the only sure way to completely eliminate that risk.”
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