In summary

Indoor pollution from gas furnaces, heaters, dryers and gas stoves can cause asthma in children – Californians should commit to healthier homes.

By Lisa Patel, Special to CalMatters

Dr. Lisa Patel is a practicing Bay Area pediatrician and works at Stanford’s Sean Parker Center for Allergy and Asthma Research, lisapatelmd@gmail.com.

On days when I awaken to skies darkened with smoke from wildfires, I worry even before I arrive at the hospital that our emergency rooms will be filled with asthma patients. The pollution blanketing the West Coast is too much for many lungs to handle – and children are especially vulnerable.

Over the years, I’ve stabilized and treated many children suffering from asthma – we descend on them quickly in the emergency room with IV’s, medications and inhalers. If they are in “good” shape, their lungs sound wheezy and raspy, but there is comfort in hearing that at least air can pass through. But children with silent lungs often lie limp and tired – they have spent too much of their energy just trying to keep their lungs open, and their body is on the verge of giving up. The inflammation in their lungs won’t let air through, and all I can hear through my stethoscope is silence. 

I see this too often in the hospital where I practice, as rates of asthma have become epidemic – and one cause in particular has me concerned, especially with families staying indoors this year to slow the spread of COVID-19. That’s the pollution from gas furnaces, heaters, dryers and especially gas stoves. 

This week, the California Energy Commission is working with the California Air Resources Board to further examine the impacts of gas appliances on Californians’ indoor air quality – and I’m urging them to consider the evidence and develop health-protecting policies like all-electric building codes for new homes.

The transition off of gas appliances cannot come quickly enough – families seeking to lower their children’s exposure to smoke from wildfires should not have to worry that staying indoors is further endangering their health.

Yet, children who grow up in homes with gas stoves are 42% more likely to develop asthma symptoms, and homes with gas stoves can have nitrogen dioxide concentrations that are 50% to 400% higher than homes with electric stoves.

Children in lower-income families who live in rentals with smaller spaces and less ventilation are especially at risk – surveys estimate that only 35% of Californians use range hoods when cooking. All directions point toward a need for science-based policy to protect our indoor air quality.

Even well-vented appliances are hurting our health by dirtying our outdoor air quality. A recent UCLA School of Public Health study reports that switching to all-electric appliances would prevent enough NOx and PM2.5 in our outdoor air quality to save 354 lives and prevent hundreds of cases of respiratory illnesses each year – enough to deliver $3.5 billion in health benefits.

We’ve long taken for granted that we power our appliances with a fuel pumped out of the ground in oil and gas operations, funneled into neighborhoods through intricate networks of gas lines, and burned in our homes. It’s akin to the way we used leaded gasoline in our cars until 1986, spewing a toxic metal into our air and the soil in backyards across the state, until we finally faced the neurological risks for children and found a better way. 

There are better options for cooking and heating homes. In 2018, cities in California began adopting “reach codes” for all-electric new construction. This movement, supported by health professionals, is spreading – San Francisco is currently considering one such ordinance and advocates are calling for the California Energy Commission to pursue gas-free new buildings in the 2022 building code update. 

While fossil fuel companies have objected loudly in hearings and made noise in advertising campaigns around the state, pediatricians like me are motivated by a different sound: the silence in a child struggling to breathe.  We’re fighting for the ability of a healthy kid taking a deep, resonant breath. It’s time for Californians to commit to a future with healthier homes.

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