New research about gas stoves ignited intense online debate last week about the politics of regulating American homes

(Don’t) Light My Fire

New research about gas stoves ignited intense online debate last week about the politics of regulating American homes

Gas stoves are the subject of recent discussion about American safety regulations. (Kwon Junho/Unsplash)

One would think that if the American public found out that a home appliance was causing children to potentially develop serious respiratory problems or was leaking chemicals like methane and benzene, these worrisome facts—and they are facts—would become a cause for concern. Recall, for example, the days of “Get the lead out!” sloganeering, which targeted leaded gasoline after the oil companies could no longer actually gaslight the general public about the adverse degenerative effects of airborne lead. Or, previously, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring and the outrage that followed forced regulators to ban DDT. We once all came together as a planet to reduce the impact of refrigerants and hair sprays on the ozone layer, a campaign successful enough that the damage caused in the 1980s has almost entirely been reversed. History flattens these campaigns, making them seem like common-sense regulatory policy instead of long, hard fights against industry giants waged by a mixture of civic-minded politicians and ordinary people.

And yet, last week, when a similar common sense regulatory policy was on the table, instead of breathing a sigh of relief about moves being made to better public and environmental health without the necessity of decades of Love Canal–esque protest, the American public instead went apeshit.

Last Monday, Richard Trumka Jr., head of the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC), told Bloomberg that the agency was considering regulation on gas stoves after alarming data emerged showing a link between gas stoves and unacceptable levels of indoor air pollution as well as potential public health problems like childhood asthma. Instead of careful consideration about one’s health and safety or that of one’s children, a news cycle of outrage broke out.

In one tweet, South Carolina Representative Jeff Duncan called the move a “power grab,” saying “Washington bureaucrats should have no say in how Americans prepare their dinner,” and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis tweeted pictures of a gas stove signed with his name with the caption “Don’t Tread on Florida.” It was an act of grandstanding, as Florida has one of the lowest percentages of gas stove use in the country.

On a personal, anecdotal level, even liberal friends pushed back against the ban, claiming that gas stoves just cook better (especially in certain situations, like using a wok) and that electric stoves just don’t heat up as fast. Others deflected from the issue altogether, saying, essentially, “I rent. What the hell am I supposed to do about it?” Matt Yglesias, the perennial bedbug of online discourse, contributed his usual round of contrarian analysis where he relates the issue at hand with a completely unrelated issue (the housing shortage) without any evidence whatsoever.

A full-blown culture war erupted, seemingly overnight. On the afternoon of January 9, Trumka had to clarify on Twitter that he was not, in fact “coming for anyone’s gas stoves,” adding that the Inflation Reduction Act would provide an $840 rebate and up to an additional $500 to aid in installation for anyone who switches to electric. In some respect, the outrage cycle worked. By Wednesday, Biden had to weigh in on an anti–gas-stove-ban, and regulators had to answer to the roar instead of holding the line and brushing aside what the dumbest and most cynical people in politics have to say.

The thing is: The U.S. CPSC should ban gas stoves in both new-build and existing housing. Wok affinities aside, burning gas contributes to greenhouse gas emissions. It is dangerous to have gas, a volatile and explosive substance, running throughout your house. While the link to childhood asthma is only a preliminary finding, it has been shown that gas stoves leak into the home alarming levels of methane, benzene, carbon monoxide, and nitrogen dioxide, a chemical linked by the EPA to reduced cognitive performance, cardiovascular problems, premature death and cancer. Gas stoves also emit methane even when the stove is not lit. These things are bad!

Part of the reason you’re only hearing about them now is because the gas industry has been covertly and overtly manufacturing the opinion that gas is great for decades and decades. A New York Times article showed that the Propane Education and Research Council (PERC) “has spent millions of dollars on ‘provocative anti-electrification messaging’ for TV, print, and social media,” including sponsoring influencers to leak pro-propane messages. This isn’t an old technique by the gas industry by any means—they’ve been at this for decades. Most older folks no doubt remember the popular phrase “Now you’re cooking with gas!”, which was a kind of “Where’s the beef?” of the energy industry. Cheesy sloganeering aside, huge amounts of money are on the line. Though it appears to be focused on heating, PERC plans to spend $13 million in 2023 against electrification efforts. It’s wild to think that even something as benign as a heat pump can be politicized.

A compromise to the stove issue would be at least requiring gas stoves to be paired with suitable ventilation, namely in the form of a high-powered extraction hood, another expensive appliance. My own gas stove (with wok burner!) fills the house with smoke when my husband and I use it for frying because our landlords simply installed a microwave with a dinky little fan above it that only redistributes the smoke instead of venting it outside. Every time we fry, we have to disable our smoke detector.

Perhaps part of the problem is a mere misconception or rational fear: People equate the words “electric stove” with the shitty coil-burner landlord special they were forced to cook with in college. Today, the industry has evolved, much to the acclaim of many famous chefs. I don’t know if you’ve seen an induction stovetop before, but the way it can boil a pot of water in only a minute or so is pretty magical. Besides, the government, far from sending jumpsuited agents into your house Brazil-style to forcibly steal your precious appliance, is instead literally offering you (or your landlord) money for a brand-new stove.

Why the hell is everyone so mad?

I’m willing to bet that an “average” American would absolutely switch to a new stove if it meant saving money. This is a win-win situation, as people support policy that benefits them in some way—unless, of course, you’re Hank Hill. But the threat of regulation has spurred right-wing demagogues into once again hijacking something being studied by the government as a way to improve people’s lives and turning it into yet another front in a never-ending culture war. The anger politicizes something as asinine as a home appliance by appealing to the narrative of big-government intrusion into our castle-like homes to seize our precious hearths and our sacred chicken dinners. Somehow it’s cool when Big Government provides funding for home loans, PPP loans, or the interstate highway system, but talk of taking away my gas stove to protect my health arrives and suddenly it’s “don’t tread on me.”

This is nothing new. From leaded gas to cigarettes to seatbelts, the worst apologists of free-market capitalism loathe regulation because they believe regulation loses money. To them, sickness and death is just the cost of doing business.

The gas stove debacle of ‘23 isn’t even a culture war, which is what makes it so stupid. It has nothing to do with culture because real culture (like cooking with woks) is able to adapt to technological changes over time. What we’re instead dealing with is loud-mouth, wounded individualism mixed with commodity fetishism. Both sides know this is the game, so it increasingly does not matter whether it is true or not: The news cycles of outrage continue regardless.

I hate that restating basic facts like “gas can explode in your home” passes as criticism these days. I hate that an incident as lame as Ron DeSantis posting a Gadsen flag meme about gas stoves actually says something about society. I hate that the home, a space that should connote safety and security, is continuously politicized and weaponized against policies that might make it more safe and more secure. I hate having to explain that you can use a wok on an induction stove. I hate having to write about any of this at all.

Kate Wagner is an architecture critic and a journalist.