Gas stoves are heating up in the news, and Boston Globe reporter Travis Andersen is bragging about it like a teenage boy:
“Happy new year, Into the Red readers,
“I can’t believe we live in a world where a tweet that reads “God. Guns. Gas stoves” can go viral.
“Last week, I uncovered a new study on the children’s asthma risk posed by gas stove exposure, and I hoped readers would take note of the worrying data. I mean, the authors concluded the risk of exposure to gas stoves is comparable to that of exposure to secondhand smoke. But I didn’t expect my story – some of the very first reporting done on the new report – would fuel the culture war of the week.
“Go beyond the political skirmishes and read about the report from me here.”
“Uncovered,” mind you, as if the authors of the report were trying to keep it secret. Lord knows, they would never think about delivering a copy of their study designed at freeing the world from methane-spewing gas stoves to a reporter for Into the Red, the Globe’s special initiative “to cover climate change…the most pressing issue of our time.”
Some, at this point, might have thought the pandemic “the most pressing issue of our time” given the 6.7 million now reported to have been killed by the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
Not to mention, there was a time when an American journalist might feel a little bad – not good – about pouring fuel on the fires of the culture war. But Andersen seems to be relishing in it unless he is naive enough to believe he really knows enough about air pollution -indoor and out – to rise above the political skirmishes that taint science as much as everything else these days to produce a story free of political spin.
Getting what you paid for
The study he “uncovered” has problems, starting with the fact that it was largely funded by RMI, an interest group that says it is “working to accelerate the clean energy transition and improve lives. ” RMI considers electric stoves cleaner than gas stoves because the latter have been shown to emit small amounts of methane, a potent greenhouse gas.
Researchers from California’s Stanford University and PSE Healthy Energy have estimated that “over the course of one year, leaks from gas stoves in the U.S. have a climate impact comparable to the carbon dioxide emissions from roughly 500,000 passenger vehicles.”
Roughly 500,000 sounds like a pretty big number, but it shrinks a bit when put in the context of the more than 105 million passenger vehicles Statista reports registered in the U.S. today. The 500,000 would represent about 0.5 percent of the passenger cars and trucks on the road.
The environmental impact of gas stoves shrinks even more when you consider that Transport Geography now reports 59 percent of American families own two or more cars. If we want to cut greenhouse gas emissions by the equivalent of 500,000 cars, it would seem easier to convince more of these people to downsize to one motor vehicle which would help not only reduce greenhouse gas emissions but the motor-vehicle congestion that clogs so many American cities today.
And thus in turn the volume of greenhouse gases emitted by idling cars.
Maybe we could even get mom or dad could to trade one of those motor vehicles in for an e-bike. Researchers in the United Kingdom have concluded a reasonable shift to the use of e-bikes could cut carbon emissions in that country by 24.4 million tonnes. Such a shift would reduce the country’s travel emissions of greenhouse gases by about a third while significantly contributing to public health, they say.
There is some debate as to whether e-bikes can help their riders reach recommended daily exercise levels, but at this point in time doing anything to get people moving would be another plus. Almost since the start of the pandemic, research has shown that moderate exercise can cut the individual risk of Covid-19 hospitalization by more than half with an even greater reduction in the possibility of death.
Not to mention the already well-documented benefits of exercise in reducing deaths from the world’s two biggest killers: heart disease and cancer.
Suffice to say, there are significant benefits for both the environment and the species to be had by getting people out of motor vehicles and moving. As to the benefits of ripping gas ranges out of homes and replacing them with electric ranges – dozens of cities in California having already followed the 2019 lead of Berkley and banned the stoves in new construction – there is a whole lot more to debate, and the new study linking the stoves to asthma is badly flawed.
BJ Campbell, a data-crunching hydrologist who sidelines as the reporter/editor at Handwaving Freakoutery on Substack, has a thorough breakdown of some of the study’s problems for those who want to take a deep dive here: The Gas Stove Ashtma Lie.
Or there is this take by Emily Oster, an economics professor at Brown University who moonlights at ParentData (also on Substack) and concludes “that there are clearly many, many factors other than gas stoves that explain asthma. Some of these may also be environmental. But I’m skeptical that gas stoves play a huge role, as would be suggested by the new paper. One way to conceptualize that is to look at broad variation across space.
“The graph below shows the gas stove ownership share (from the American Housing Survey conducted by the U.S. Census Bureau) for states for which we have measurements, graphed against childhood asthma rate. There is no striking relationship. Even though Illinois has a much, much higher share of gas stove ownership, the childhood asthma rate is lower than in Florida, with very low gas stove ownership. Does this mean that gas stoves do not matter? No. But it suggests other things matter a lot more.”
Suffice to say, the gas-stove study’s conclusion that gas stoves are responsible for almost 13 percent of U.S. asthma cases doesn’t pass what journalists used to call the “basic sniff test.” No study claiming such a definitive causal link as it does without showing the cause-and-effect relationship responsible should pass the sniff test.
Could gas stoves play some role in some ashtma cases? Sure. So could a lot of other things, including bad household air for a variety of reasons.
“In children, visible mold and mold odor were associated with the development and exacerbations of asthma, providing sufficient evidence of a causal relationship,” European researchers concluded in 2017. “Results from population-based studies in adults were too few and divergent to conclude at more than a limited level of evidence. Exposure to mold in a work building was associated with the incidence and exacerbations of occupational asthma, and we concluded at sufficient evidence for an association. Systematic reviews, meta-analyses and longitudinal studies on the relationships between mold exposure and allergic rhinitis provide sufficient evidence of an association.”
But those scientists made no attempt to put a number on what percentage of asthma cases are due to mold because that is almost impossible to do. It would be educated speculation at best and a wild-ass guess (WAG) at worst.
A U.S. study published in 2021 did try to take a better look at mold in the homes of urban children with difficult to control ashtma. The sample size for the homes was small; there were only 485. But the study was able to compare the actual air quality in the homes of kids with serious asthma and those without, and it found a problematic household appliance.
It wasn’t the gas range.
High levels of Mucor, one of 36 molds the researchers tested for, “were a predictor of difficult to control asthma,” the study reported, “and these higher Mucor levels were more likely in homes with a window air-conditioner.”
They did not, however, suggest banning air conditioners because they recognized the how and whys of asthma are complicated. Among the ashtma triggers listed by the American Academy of Allergy, Ashtma & Immunology are dust mites, animal dander, molds, pollen cockroach dropping, tobacco smoke, air pollution, strong odors, fumes, some medications (including aspirin and ibuprofen), emotional anxiety, stress, infectious viruses and bacteria, dry air, acid reflux and sometimes even exercise.
In most homes, there could be any of a wide variety of triggers for asthma, though Oster does point out there is one issue that arises in the homes of many asthmatics just as it does in the homes of many victims of Covid-19, the disease caused by the SARS-CoV-2.
“Asthma is much more common in poor children and children of color,” she notes. “Poorly ventilated apartments, possibly with gas cooking, are also more common in those groups.”
Poorly ventilated spaces have also been strongly linked to Covid-19, as has social economic status.
No one knows exactly why lower social-economic status (SES) translates into worse health outcomes, but it pops up as a determining factor in medicine almost everywhere.
Low SES appears to produce something of a nocebo effect, the opposite of the placebo effect that has been shown to make sugar pills work like drugs to treat disease. Researchers studying children suffering from fetal alcohol syndrome (FAS) and IFetal Alcohol Syndrome Disorder) have written about a “poverty trap” given the role of SES there.
“The association between poverty or low socioeconomic status and mothers of children with FASD is well documented,” they write. “The risk of bearing a child with FAS is about 16 times higher for women of lower SES even with comparable drinking levels.”
Nobody is sure why. But the SES of the people cooking with gas is only one of many confounders that would need to be corrected for in any sort of study trying to put a legitimate percentage on the role of gas stoves in causing asthma if, of course, gas stove are causing significant asthma.
It is likely they are triggering some. There is no doubt some ignorant renter or homeowner somewhere is cooking with a gas stove in a small, unvented space, which makes about as much sense as leaving your car running in an attached garage to warm it up in the winter – exhaust emissions being another asthma trigger.
The auto issue was actually studied in Anchorage where researchers measured benzene levels in the homes of people with attached garages and found “more severe symptoms of asthma in the homes with high gasoline exposure (16 percent) where benzene levels exceeded the nine parts per billion (ppb).”
The researchers working on that study tested 596 home and found an average 2.96 ppb of benzene in the air, but there was a wide variation from undetectable levels to 58 ppb. Needless to say, the much talked about gas-stove study didn’t go about testing homes in this way.
It was largely an exercise in playing with numbers as have been all too many modeling studies of SARS-CoV-2 during the pandemic.
Reporters and editors should be expected to be able to figure these things out, but it seems they often can’t.
Played like fish
This has, admittedly, been a problem for a long time. Reporters have been being played for as long as there have been reporters. New York Times reporter Judith Miller famously carried the water for the one-time leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmad Chalabi, who along with the administration of former President George W. Bush was pushing the idea that Iraq possessed “weapons of mass destruction.”
Anchorage Daily News (ADN) reporter Richard Mauer was similarly manipulated by officials of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) hoping to advance their careers by prosecuting the late Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. Stevens was indicted and later convicted on changes of failing to report as income renovations that turned a cabin in the ski resort community of Girdwood into what the newspaper liked to refer to as “Stevens’ chalet” despite photos that made it more like a rather modest, if not rundown, two-story house.
After Steven’s conviction, an FBI whistleblower later revealed the Justice Department failed to turn over to Stevens’ defense attorneys information that would have aided his defense, hid a key witness in the case, convinced other witnesses to change their testimony and more. The whistleblower’s information led to the appointment of special investigator who authored what Politico came to describe as a “scathing new report” revealing that “federal prosecutors knowingly concealed exculpatory evidence and allowed false testimony to be presented at trial in their overzealous pursuit of criminal charges” against Stevens, who was eventually exonerated.
Mauer was easily played because he never liked Stevens, but reporters trying their hardest to avoid bias – including this one – have been played just as often or more. What is different now is that many reporters readily go along with it, sometimes even ask for it.
More than a few old-time agents of public relations have admitted to being shocked at reporters now wanting to have the news delivered to them electronically in the form of a press release only to later read that release, with but a few words altered, published as a news story.
The healthy skepticism that used to permeate newsrooms when public relations personnel were regularly dismissed as “flacks” has largely disappeared in the age of political correctness. By 2009 a study of news stories published in the Journal of Public Relations were reporting PR types were still sometimes referred to as “spin doctors,” “but it was encouraging not to see the disparaging term flack used in any descriptions of public relations efforts.
This is a major shift from an earlier time when “Stanley Walker, an editor at the New York Herald Tribune, identified public relations agents as ‘mass-
“Much of this antagonism, directed at public relations from the journalism profession, is historical. Journalists have long considered themselves part of a public service profession, but some regard PR as having emerged as a pseudo-
The antagonistic relationship to which Walker referred is now near dead. Journalists and PR representatives these days often think of themselves as partners, possibly because most of the smart kids have the sense to quickly abandon the seemingly romantic world of journalism for the much-better paying world of public relations but have the sense to maintain their relationships with those left behind because such relationships are valuable to their new bosses.
When Bloomberg crunched U.S. Department of Labor numbers in 2019, it found flacks outnumbered journalists by six to one in the U.S., and the margin is growing, not shrinking, as journalists trend toward endangered status.
“Employment of public relations specialists is projected to grow 8 percent from 2021 to 2031, faster than the average for all occupations,” according to the latest report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS). “About 27,400 openings for public relations specialists are projected each year, on average, over the decade.”
Why have they become so popular?
Well, the BLS job description pretty well says it all: “Public relations specialists create and maintain a positive public image for the clients they represent.”
Journalists are charged with painting an accurate picture rather than a positive public image in a world far more gray than black and white – a world in which the “good guys” sometimes aren’t all that good, and the bad guys sometimes aren’t all that bad.
Or at least this once was the case.
In the politically polarized world of America today – where the growth of good, old-fashioned tribalism is pushing more and more people to choose a side in the country’s culture war – the role for those who tell a story in all its greys is fading fast, and sometimes it is because they have gone over to the side of their one-time PR enemy.
Just as often though, it is because the draft of the story written by a flack somewhere arrives on the desk of a reporter who doesn’t have the desire, the will or the skill to fix or even temper the spin, but is happy to pass it along and then pat himself or herself on the back for doing a good job for being the first to get the “news” out there.