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Cleaner, healthier gas burners were developed decades ago. Why aren't they available?

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

There's been a lot of chatter lately about gas stoves; namely that when you turn on your gas stove, it emits pollution that can affect the health of people in your home. Yeah, OK, I got it. But manufacturers know how to make burners cleaner and much more efficient. In fact, they've known how for a long time. Problem is, stoves with those burners have never been offered for sale. But that may be about to change. Jeff Brady from NPR's Climate Desk joins us now. Hey, Jeff.

JEFF BRADY, BYLINE: Hey, Ailsa.

CHANG: OK, so let me get this straight. Manufacturers have known how to do this for a long time - (laughter) what? So for how long, and why did they originally invest in developing cleaner burners?

BRADY: It had started about 40 years ago. Federal regulators were considering a ban on kerosene space heaters because they put out a lot of air pollution into a room. And gas cooking stove makers and gas utility saw that and worried the government might come for them next. So they developed this thing called an infrared burner. It uses 40% less gas, emits 40% less nitrogen dioxide, and NO2 is the pollutant that public health experts worry about most when it comes to cooking with gas. Research shows that there is a connection between having a gas stove and childhood asthma, as well as other health problems. And if you reduce the pollutants from the burners, that likely would also reduce the risk of illness.

CHANG: OK. So tell me more. How are these efficient or more efficient burners different exactly?

BRADY: Well, instead of that familiar blue flame, these infrared gas burners look more like a traditional electric burner. They glow red, and you can hardly even see that there's a flame there. I showed this design to Brady Seals at the environmental group RMI, and she said the fact that manufacturers and utilities developed a partial solution for the pollution issue and didn't sell the burners just underscores the need for regulation.

BRADY SEALS: You know, the time is long overdue for mandatory performance standards for gas stoves so that we can make sure that they are meeting a health protective levels of pollutants inside our homes.

BRADY: Appliance manufacturers say they're working on voluntary standards to limit nitrogen dioxide from gas stoves.

CHANG: Wait. So why don't manufacturers make and sell these cleaner burners and gas stoves already? Like, what's the problem?

BRADY: One reason is, is that iconic blue flame. It goes away on infrared burners. And that's a big part of their marketing.

CHANG: It is?

BRADY: Yes. A lot of utilities feature that blue flame in their logo. And also these burners, they're more expensive, and they can be a little harder to clean. But most importantly, consumers just haven't demanded a cleaner burner. But that may be changing now that gas stoves are in the news again. I talked with Frank Johnson. He's at GTI Energy. That's a gas industry research organization. And he says they're working on new burner improvements now.

FRANK JOHNSON: The design of cooking equipment has not changed a lot over time, but it's starting to change now, and it's just going to take time for those to become available.

BRADY: And for gas utilities, that stove is key. It doesn't consume a lot of gas, but it's considered kind of this gateway appliance. People like cooking on them. And if there's already a gas stove in a house, it's more likely that consumers will burn gas in their furnace, their water heater or clothes dryer.

CHANG: Exactly. OK. Well, the reason we're talking more about this now is because of all the regulation issues that have been discussed. Earlier this month, in fact, somebody on the Consumer Product Safety Commission was talking about banning gas stoves. Is that a real possibility, you think?

BRADY: You know, it seems unlikely to me, but the commission is starting on March 1 to look at the available science about health and safety risks. Commissioner Richard Trumka, he's the one you mentioned about banning gas stoves. He said that in December. And I'll just summarize what he said, that these processes usually can take a long time, but this one could happen by this time next year.

CHANG: That is NPR's Jeff Brady. Thank you, Jeff.

BRADY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Jeff Brady is a National Desk Correspondent based in Philadelphia, where he covers energy issues and climate change. Brady helped establish NPR's environment and energy collaborative which brings together NPR and Member station reporters from across the country to cover the big stories involving the natural world.