Got Lungs? Berkeley’s Got Your Back (and the Gas Industry Doesn’t)

Cities are leading the charge for all-electric homes to cut the methane and protect our health.

Would you like to have clean, breathable air where you spend 90% of your time? We would. So would the city of Berkeley, which is why we joined a broad coalition of health advocates, legal and environmental experts, and state and local governments standing in support of the city’s shift to all-electric new buildings.

At issue is a Berkeley ordinance upgrading from gas hookups in most new buildings to all-electric new construction, a move that other jurisdictions, including New York City, have now copied. Health experts strongly support such ordinances due to the health risks posed by methane in the homes and other indoor spaces where Americans spend roughly 90% of our time. This is a no-brainer: let’s stop needlessly poisoning the air where we live and work.

The California Restaurant Association has sued in federal court to try to overturn Berkeley’s ordinance, hoping to set a precedent that will stop, or at least drastically slow, the movement away from gas and towards all-electric nationwide. They lost in federal district court and have appealed to the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, which will hear arguments May 12.

The CRA and allies, including the American Gas Association, claim that Berkeley overstepped its authority. But, as the National League of Cities, League of California Cities and the California State Association of Counties explain in an amicus brief supporting Berkeley, the city was simply exercising its “duly delegated police powers to protect public health, safety, and the general welfare.”

And fossil gas truly does threaten our health. Gas appliances represent a major reason that Americans routinely suffer from indoor air pollution levels that, according to EPA, are documented to range from two to five times worse than the outside air – and can be as much as 100 times worse. 

Burning gas fills the air in our homes and offices with harmful chemicals such as nitrogen oxides, carbon monoxide, fine particulates known as PM2.5, benzene and formaldehyde. Represented by Earthjustice, Climate Health Now and Bay Area Physicians for Social Responsibility point out in their brief supporting Berkeley that the EPA has found that NO2 levels in homes with gas stoves can exceed safe levels by 400%, and “even short-term NO2 exposure can cause respiratory health effects, such as impaired lung function, respiratory symptoms, inflammation of the airway, and asthma exacerbations requiring hospitalization.”

This stuff is bad for you. Really, really bad. And the gas industry wants us all to keep breathing it.

The evidence that gas damages our health continues to pile up. A 2013 meta-analysis of 41 studies spanning three and a half decades found that children living in homes with gas stoves had a 42 percent higher risk of experiencing asthma symptoms – health problems that can have lifelong impacts. A study published last year found that elderly adults with long-term exposure to even low levels of the pollutants produced by burning gas have increased risks of pneumonia, stroke, and cardiovascular conditions.

Phasing out gas also represents an important step in the fight against climate change: Gas appliances used for heating and cooking represent roughly 13% of U.S. greenhouse gas emissions. In the city of Berkeley, that figure is a staggering 37%.

And anyone who’s breathed smoke from this spring’s wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico or the fires in recent years in California can tell you that climate change has health effects, too. This is hurting all of us.

That’s why such a huge coalition came together to support Berkeley as it defends its residents’ health. In addition to the health experts and local government associations, the states of California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, New Jersey, New Mexico, Oregon, Washington, and the District of Columbia have weighed in, as has the U.S. Department of Energy, and environmental and legal experts.

A pair of chefs have even filed a brief deflating the restaurant association’s practical arguments, explaining that “chefs can run any kind of kitchen on all-electric appliances, and ordinances like Berkeley’s are nothing to fear.” Electric induction cooking, they explain, not only outperforms gas, it’s healthier for kitchen staffs, sparing them the excess heat and toxic air produced by gas stoves.

We all love good food, but it doesn’t need to come with a side of damaged lungs. There’s no good reason anymore to keep burning gas for cooking and heating in our homes and businesses. The gas industry can fight all it wants, but ultimately our health and the health of the planet must take precedence over their profits.

Based in Washington, D.C., Timothy is a senior attorney with the Right to Zero team.

Regina Hsu is a senior attorney in Earthjustice’s California Regional Office, where she works on the Right to Zero campaign. Regina primarily works to accelerate transportation electrification in California and nationwide. Much of her work centers on electrifying the goods movement industry and reducing pollution at the San Pedro Bay Ports, the largest port complex in the United States and single largest stationary source of pollution in the Los Angeles region.

Earthjustice’s Washington, D.C., office works at the federal level to prevent air and water pollution, combat climate change, and protect natural areas. We also work with communities in the Mid-Atlantic region and elsewhere to address severe local environmental health problems, including exposures to dangerous air contaminants in toxic hot spots, sewage backups and overflows, chemical disasters, and contamination of drinking water. The D.C. office has been in operation since 1978.

A father prepares a meal with his son on an induction stove.
Cooking on an electric induction stove. Children who grow up in a home with a gas stove are 42% more likely to develop asthma than those who don’t. Stronger efficiency standards pose threats to SoCalGas' business. (Tom Werner / Getty Images)