As the nights get colder, you have probably started to use your heater more, or fired up your gas stovetop to whip up a big pot of warming soup.
But a new report has warned that household gas use is responsible for up to 12 per cent of the childhood asthma burden in Australia.
The Climate Council report — Kicking the Gas Habit: How Gas is Harming our Health — analysed more than 40 international studies on gas production and the household use of gas.
“One of the big findings was that, for a child living with gas cooking in the home, they say the comparable risk of asthma is to a child living with household cigarette smoke,” lead author Dr Kate Charlesworth from the Climate Council said.
“Gas produces a whole range of air pollutants, including nitrogen dioxide and PM2.5, and those are both strongly linked with asthma.
Dr Charlesworth said that while half of Australian households used gas in their homes, children were more vulnerable to air pollution “for a whole range of reasons”.
“Firstly they’re at home a lot, they have immature respiratory and immune systems, [so] they’re not as good as clearing toxins and pollutants in that way, ” she said.
“They also have a higher respiratory rate and so they breathe in more air per kilo of body weight. So for all those reasons, children are more at risk.”
Findings may come as a shock to asthma sufferers
One in nine Canberrans have asthma — slightly higher than the national average — and Asthma Australia CEO Michele Goldman said that this report’s findings might “shock” some people who were more likely to link bushfire smoke or pollen to the respiratory condition.
“Some people will be shocked to learn that cooking dinner on a gas stove could be contributing to their child’s asthma symptoms; we need education to improve awareness for indoor air pollution,” Ms Goldman said.
“Australia has some of the highest rates of asthma in the world, and it is the leading cause of disease burden among school-aged children.
“We should be doing everything possible to improve health outcomes for our children.”
Dr Charlesworth noted that there were already movements away from gas in the ACT and in Victoria; indeed, existing government policy has the ACT slated to abandon gas by 2045, and Canberra’s new suburbs have already been designed without gas connections.
But she said policies like these “need to happen much more broadly”.
“One of our recommendations is that governments should be assisting households to shift away from gas appliances, towards efficient electric appliances,” Dr Charlesworth said, adding that the use of unflued heating in schools was also something that needed to change.
Unflued heaters are standalone heaters which draw cold air from a room, but have no way to release their fumes outside through an exhaust system, and so they are released back into the living area.
“One of the interesting findings in the report is that whilst most states and territories have banned unflued gas heating in schools, NSW [still] use unflued gas heating,” Dr Charlesworth said.
The report also found that lower socio-economic households are more exposed to the harmful effects of gas because of things like unflued heaters, and poorly maintained appliances.
“This is an issue of health equity,” Dr Charlesworth said.
The best ways to eliminate risk
“[This was] a big international study, looking at 40 studies, so that’s a very high level of evidence,” she said.
“And evidence of course around household cigarette smoke and asthma is also extremely strong, so that’s why we’ve made that comparison.
“Gas not only increases the risk of asthma for Australian children in their homes and in their schools, but let’s not forget gas is a fossil fuel, and fossil fuels are driving extreme weather events … which themselves have a health risk.
While the findings of the report indicate that the best way to reduce the risk of asthma is to remove gas altogether, there are some things households can do in the short term.
“People can take steps to reduce their risk by increasing ventilation, such as modern extraction fans over gas stoves, flues for gas heaters, and simple measures like opening windows,” Dr Charlesworth said.
“However, this won’t eliminate the risk completely. The only way to eliminate it is to shift to electrical appliances.”