While this may seem like any corporate sponsorship, we now know it was a part of a calculated campaign by gas industry executives to increase use of gas stoves across the United States. And stoves weren’t the only objective. The gas industry wanted to grow its residential market, and homes that used gas for cooking were likely also to use it for heat and hot water.
The industry’s efforts went well beyond careful product placement, according to new research from the nonprofit Climate Investigations Center, which analyzes corporate efforts to undermine climate science and slow the ongoing transition away from fossil fuels. As the center’s study and a National Public Radio investigation show, when evidence emerged in the early 1970s about the health effects of indoor nitrogen dioxide exposure from gas stove use, the American Gas Association launched a campaign designed to manufacture doubt about the existing science.
The gas industry relied on Hill & Knowlton, the same public relations company that masterminded the tobacco industry’s playbook
for responding to research linking smoking to lung cancer. Hill & Knowlton’s tactics included sponsoring research that would counter findings about gas stoves published in the scientific literature, emphasizing uncertainty in these findings to construct artificial controversy and engaging in aggressive public relations efforts.
For example, the gas industry obtained and reanalyzed the data from an EPA study on Long Island that showed more respiratory problems in homes with gas stoves. Their reanalysis concluded that there were no significant differences in respiratory outcomes.
The industry also funded its own health studies in the early 1970s, which confirmed large differences in nitrogen dioxide exposures but did not show significant differences in respiratory outcomes. These findings were documented in publications where industry funding was not disclosed. These conclusions were amplified in numerous meetings and conferences and ultimately influenced major governmental reports summarizing the state of the literature.
This campaign was remarkable, since the basics of how gas stoves affected indoor air pollution and respiratory health were straightforward and well established at the time. Burning fuel, including natural gas, generates nitrogen oxides: The air in Earth’s atmosphere is about 78% nitrogen and 21% oxygen, and these gases react at high temperatures.
The key question is whether nitrogen dioxide exposure related to gas stoves is large enough to lead to health concerns. While levels vary across homes, scientific research shows that the simple answer is yes – especially in smaller homes and when ventilation is inadequate.
Despite this evidence, the gas industry’s campaign was largely successful. Industry-funded studies successfully muddied the waters, as I have seen over the course of my research career, and stalled further federal investigations or regulations addressing gas stove safety.
As communities wrestle with these questions, regulators, politicians and consumers need accurate information about the risks of gas stoves and other products in homes. There is room for vigorous debate that considers a range of evidence, but I believe that everyone has a right to know where that evidence comes from.
Jonathan Levy has received funding from the National Institutes of Health, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Health Effects Institute for studies on the contribution of outdoor and indoor sources to air pollution levels in homes.