Even when they’re turned off, gas stoves in California are leaking toxins into homes at levels that are comparable to secondhand smoke, according to new research published Thursday in the journal Environmental Science & Technology. In some areas, the amount of escaping gas reached seven times the state’s recommended limits.
Scientists detected an array of air pollutants—including toluene, ethylbenzene, xylene and benzene—in samples they collected from unlit gas stoves in 159 homes across California. All of the chemicals can contribute to health issues in humans, but the researchers are particularly concerned about the presence of benzene, which can cause cancer, specifically increasing the risk of leukemia.
Per the findings, benzene levels were highest in homes in the greater Los Angeles region, the North San Fernando Valley and the San Clarita Valley.
“What our science shows is that people in California are exposed to potentially hazardous levels of benzene from the gas that is piped into their homes,” says study co-author Drew Michanowicz, a senior scientist at the energy research and policy institute PSE Healthy Energy, to Drew Costley of the Associated Press (AP). “We hope that policymakers will consider this data when they are making policy to ensure current and future policies are health-protective in light of this new research.”
The team also estimated that outdoor gas pipes in California release more than four tons of benzene into the atmosphere yearly, which is similar to the annual benzene emissions from 58,800 vehicles. These emissions are not included in the state’s calculations, per the paper.
Benzene is a widely used industrial chemical. It’s produced synthetically, as well as by natural processes such as forest fires and volcanoes. Manufacturers use it to make dyes, plastics, fibers, resins, pesticides, detergents, lubricants and other products. It’s present in gasoline and crude oil, as well as tobacco smoke.
Exposure to benzene causes human cells to malfunction, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Symptoms of poisoning from breathing the gas include tremors, irregular heartbeat, headaches, confusion, dizziness and even death.
Long-term benzene exposure can lead to even more impacts, including cancer, anemia, excessive bleeding, irregular menstrual periods and a weakened immune system, per the CDC. Even if benzene levels are low, the toxic chemical can accumulate in the body over a lifetime.
The researchers argue that their findings support policies to phase out gas appliances and replace them with electric alternatives to reduce environmental impacts. California, for instance, will phase out the sale of all new gas furnaces and water heaters by 2030, and roughly 50 municipalities within the state have banned or discouraged the installation of gas stoves in new construction. The federal Inflation Reduction Act also includes incentives for homeowners who install electric induction cooktops.
Natural gas combustion is responsible for roughly 80 percent of all residential and commercial carbon dioxide emissions in the United States. Though appliances that run on electricity do not completely erase emissions (as the majority of electricity is still generated by coal, natural gas, petroleum and other fossil fuels), advocates say they are more sustainable than those powered by gas. And transitioning power plants that run on fossil fuels to renewable sources, such as wind and solar, will decrease electricity's emissions.
But not everyone is putting stock in the study’s findings. The American Gas Association, for one, tells The Hill’s Gianna Melillo in a statement that the study’s sample size was too small to have produced any meaningful results. The association, which represents more than 200 local energy companies that provide natural gas across the country, also took issue with the study’s assumptions about how frequently air gets replaced in a room.
“It is difficult to draw any conclusions from measurements from 159 homes in one state when there are more than 77 million residential, commercial and industrial natural gas customers in all fifty states,” per the statement.