Multnomah County Report: Replace Gas Appliances To Reduce Health, Climate Change Impacts

This article was originally published by Oregon Public Broadcasting.

new report from Multnomah County health officials recommends households transition from gas appliances to electric because research shows gas stoves release pollutants that pose high risks to human health and contribute to climate change.

On Thursday, Multnomah County Health Department officials presented their findings to the board of commissioners and explained how gas stoves release air pollutants such as carbon monoxide, nitrogen dioxide, and particulate matter that get trapped indoors — even when the gas stove is not in use.

To protect public health and improve air quality, health officials are recommending households replace their gas stoves and other gas-burning appliances such as furnaces with electric alternatives if possible.

Breathing toxic pollutants can cause health effects including asthma, cancer, heart disease, stroke, respiratory diseases, and even diabetes.

Multnomah County’s public health director Jessica Guernsey told commissioners indoor air pollution has consistently ranked among the top five environmental risks to public health and disproportionately impacts low-income households and communities of color.

She said while outdoor air pollution has been regulated for decades, there are still no federal standards or guidelines that regulate indoor air pollution.

“We’re broadening our awareness of the decades of research that are demonstrating now that gas appliances — especially for cooking — are potentially a health risk,” she said. “Gas stoves are a specific concern because they are a proximate source of indoor air pollution.”

According to the report, 50% of households in Multnomah County rely on gas to heat their homes, but there is no data that indicates how many households use gas stoves.

Multnomah County Chair Deborah Kafoury said it is the board’s responsibility to improve public health, make choices that are understandable and accessible to residents and take a critical look at the many systems that impact health and well-being.

“I, like many people, have a gas stove at home and honestly, until recently I thought nothing of it,” she said. “The evidence continues to mount that gas stoves may be harming our health, and it really should not have been such a surprise.”

The use of natural gas in homes and in buildings is becoming a hot topic, and health and environmental advocates are pushing for an end to its use. Gas appliances like stoves and furnaces use natural gas, which is predominately methane — a greenhouse gas that is more than 80 times more potent at trapping heat in the atmosphere than carbon dioxide.

Natural gas makes up 21% of the state’s energy use, according to the Oregon Department of Energy’s 2022 Biennial report. Most of it is imported from Canada and the Rocky Mountains.

NW Natural’s vice president of public affairs and sustainability Kathryn Williams said the utility is disappointed they were not informed of the report before county health officials released their recommendations. NW Natural provides natural gas to about 2.5 million people in northwest Oregon and southwest Washington. About 2000 of those households are in Multnomah County.

“If the concern and focus is truly health and safety associated with cooking for community members, all potential risks associated with cooking equipment should be discussed and considered particularly with respect to proper ventilation,” Williams told county commissioners.

Williams said the utility wants to work with the county to learn more about how officials decided on their recommendations and what sources they used to create their report.

According to the Multnomah County report, 77 cities in 10 states across the country are working on phasing out the use of natural gas. This year, Washington became the first state to require most newly constructed buildings to have electric heating and water systems. California may be on a similar track, as Los Angeles recently banned most gas appliances in new homes.

In Oregon, Eugene City Council recently voted to begin drafting rules that would ban natural gas lines in new residential buildings. If passed, it would make Eugene the first city in Oregon to do so.

It’s not clear whether county commissioners could create legislation that would ban the use of gas stoves in households. Commissioners said the county should provide residents with educational materials about the use of gas stoves and proper ventilation and make them aware of future incentives for transitioning to electric appliances.

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