February 8, 2023

By KIM BELLARD

News flash from the culture wars: they’re coming to take our gas stoves!

Well, actually, “they” are not, but the kind of people who got alarmed about it are a threat to our health, and to theirs.

The gas stove furor started with a Bloomberg News interview that Richard Trumka, Jr, a Consumer Product Safety Commission commissioner. “This is a hidden hazard,” he said. “Any option is on the table. Products that can’t be made safe can be banned.”

He was referring to the well known but little acknowledged fact that gas stoves emit various pollutants, especially nitrogen dioxide. Last year the AMA adopted resolutions about the risks of gas stoves, and urged migration efforts to electric stoves. Shelly Miller, a University of Colorado, Boulder, environmental engineer has said:

Cooking is the No. 1 way you’re polluting your home. It is causing respiratory and cardiovascular health problems; it can exacerbate flu and asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease in children…you’re basically living in this toxic soup.

So one can see why the CPSC might be concerned. But the outcry about Mr. Trumka’s comments were immediate and vociferous. “I’ll NEVER give up my gas stove. If the maniacs in the White House come for my stove, they can pry it from my cold dead hands. COME AND TAKE IT!!” Rep. Ronny Jackson (R-TX) tweeted. The Atlantic further reported:

Governor Ron DeSantis tweeted a cartoon of two autographed—yes autographed—gas stoves. Representative Jim Jordan of Ohio declared simply, “God. Guns. Gas stoves.” Naturally, Tucker Carlson got involved. “I would counsel mass disobedience in the face of tyranny in this case,” he told a guest on his Fox News show.

Almost as immediately, Mr. Trumka clarified: “To be clear, CPSC isn’t coming for anyone’s gas stoves. Regulations apply to new products.” CPSC Chair Alexander Hoehn-Saric issued a statement making it clear that, while “emissions from gas stoves can be hazardous…I am not looking to ban gas stoves and the CPSC has no proceeding to do so.” The White House issued its own denial. Case closed, right?

Wrong.  House Republicans have already introduced a bill to block such a ban; 20 states, mostly Republican-controlled, have already passed such bans. It has become, as Slate put it, “the culture war of the week.” It joins, for example, masking, vaccines, abortion and climate change as issues that become political divides not on their merits but on the statement they make. 

As Brady Seals, a renewable energy expert at the Rocky Mountain Institute, told Jacob Stern of The Atlantic, “I don’t know if this discourse that we’re seeing now could have happened five years ago.” 

It doesn’t matter that gas stoves may be bad for the health of people in your house; it doesn’t matter that they’re bad for climate change either, with one study equating them to emissions of a half a million gas-powered cars. Natural gas is good for the U.S. economy, proponents argue, and, in any event, if people want to use gas stoves, they have the right to do so. Senator Joe Manchin, a Democrat but from a deeply Red state, tweeted: “The federal government has no business telling American families how to cook their dinner. I can tell you the last thing that would ever leave my house is the gas stove that we cook on.

Huh?

It’s similar to the arguments about regulating guns; demonstrably, they’re dangerous for the households they’re in and for the general public, but individuals’ supposed rights to them supersede rational discussion about the risks. Or abortion; for all the impassioned talk about the sanctity of the life of the fetus, states with more restrictive abortion laws do worse for moms and young kids.

The culture wars about masking, shutdowns, social distancing, and vaccines had real consequences; COVID death rates were higher among Republicans, at the county, state, and national level. It probably impacted the recent mid-term elections, blunting the expected Red Wave. Similarly, no one should be surprised that childhood vaccination rates are falling. We’re already seeing measles outbreaks and we can expect others.

My “favorite” other recent example of health-related culture wars comes from climate change. For all the denialism from the fossil fuel industry and the politicians who enable it, a new study found that not only did Exxon know about the risks of global warming for the past 50 years, its scientists had extremely precise predictions about exactly what that impact would be. 

Lead author Geoffrey Supran charged:

This is the nail-in-the-coffin of ExxonMobil’s claims that it has been falsely accused of climate malfeasance…Our analysis shows that ExxonMobil’s own data contradicted its public statements, which included exaggerating uncertainties, criticizing climate models, mythologizing global cooling, and feigning ignorance about when — or if — human-caused global warming would be measurable, all while staying silent on the threat of stranded fossil fuel assets.

The study’s authors concluded: “ExxonMobil understood as much about climate change as did academic and government scientists…Yet, whereas academic and government scientists worked to communicate what they knew to the public, ExxonMobil worked to deny it.” One has to wonder how many other climate change deniers the same would be true of. Fighting a culture war against climate change trumps the very real, and apparently widely known, risks of it. 

Exxon, of course, denies these latest findings too. 

America knows how to react when attacked by other countries (e.g., Pearl Harbor) or terrorists (e.g., 9/11), but we’re pretty terrible about more insidious risks. The current pandemic would qualify as a national crisis, but aside from vaccine development and throwing lots of money at it, we’ve handled it pretty badly. Our public health system is in a shambles a every level, our hospitals and healthcare workers are overwhelmed, and whatever warp speed our COVID vaccine development was at in 2020 is now more like impulse drive.   

And House Republicans and Republican Presidential candidates like Florida Governor Ron DeSantis appear more interested in fighting the culture war aspects of COVID than in, you know, fighting COVID. It’s not our health they’re focused on.

Add up the health risks from all the culture wars and it’d be a pretty scary number. Culture wars may make great Twitter, but they make bad health policy. 

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

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