Thu, Jul 18 2024 18 July, 2024

New lawsuits hit utility and gas stoves manufacturer

Armed with a large body of research demonstrating health harms from gas stoves, two new U.S. lawsuits target the gas industry.

Lit gas stoves (Photo: Adobe Stock/SuperWave)

Litigation over the health and environmental impacts of gas stoves are starting to mount, putting increasing pressure on the gas industry.

In May, a complaint filed by the U.S. Public Interest Research Group (U.S. PIRG) in a Washington DC court targets Haier U.S. Appliances, a subsidiary of GE Appliances, which manufactures gas stoves. The suit argues that Haier does not warn customers that cooking with gas results in high levels of nitrogen dioxide pollution, which can contribute to negative health impacts.

There is well-documented research that shows that gas stoves emit an array of air pollutants, including benzene and nitrogen dioxide, which can lead to respiratory ailments. US PIRG also tested the two models manufactured by Haier, measuring air pollutants, and submitted their results as evidence with the legal complaint.

“We purchased and rigorously tested two models and found that pollution levels of nitrogen dioxide were above the levels set by EPA outdoor health standards, as well as health standards put out for indoor air quality by the World Health Organization and Health Canada,” Abe Scarr, energy and utilities programme director at the U.S. PIRG, a national consumer protection NGO, told Gas Outlook.

Under Washington DC’s consumer protection laws, Haier has a duty to warn customers about potential health impacts, and the indoor air pollution from gas stoves occurs even when the stoves are used correctly, the case alleges.

The case is not seeking monetary damages from Haier, but is instead asking the court to force the company to provide consumers with information about potential health risks, which could come in the form of a warning label of some kind. But the implications of successful litigation would likely reverberate.

“Our goal is not just to have two models of GE appliances sharing this information. We’d like to have a broader impact,” Scarr said. “Maybe if, for example, GE appliances was required to do this in Washington DC, maybe they would want all their competitors have to do it as well.”

He added that a favourable legal outcome could also bolster legislative efforts to require pollution warnings for gas stoves. California, for instance, is considering such a move.

In response to questions from Gas Outlook, a spokesperson for GE Appliances said they could not comment on pending litigation.

Deceptive advertising

In a separate lawsuit, a group of plaintiffs filed a class action lawsuit in early June against gas utility Eversource in a Massachusetts state court. The case argues that Eversource has engaged in false, deceptive and misleading business practices by advertising gas as “clean,” “safe,” and “good for the environment.”

“It’s pretty simple case. The company made false statements and marketing about the impact of gas on the climate and the risk to people’s health in homes. And we’re calling them on it,” Jason Adkins, attorney at the Boston-based law firm Adkins, Kelston & Zavez, who is representing the plaintiffs, told Gas Outlook.

In online advertisements and mailed brochures, Eversource routinely touts the benefits of cooking with gas, which the lawsuit argues are false statements.

“We’re citing the overwhelming body of evidence that supports the idea that there is enhanced risk of respiratory issues from homes with gas stoves,” he said.

As Gas Outlook has reported, research has shown that gas stoves emit benzene, exposing people to levels comparable to secondhand smoke. They also leak when turned off. Pollution levels inside the home can even exceed health guidelines set for outdoor air pollution.

In fact, a new peer-reviewed study recently published in Environmental Research Letters found that benzene is not just prevalent in some instances, but is widespread. The researchers sampled more than 500 homes in cities in the U.S. and Canada and found that nearly all of them contained benzene.

The implication is that “anytime there’s a natural gas leak in the home, there’s potentially an indoor air quality issue,” Sebastian Rowland, a scientist at PSE Healthy Energy, an independent scientific research institute, told Gas Outlook.

More concerning was the finding that leaks from stoves occur routinely, even when stoves are turned off, and many people with an average sense of smell may not be able to detect them. That raises questions about much broader public exposure. “Many folks may not even be aware of the leaks,” Rowland said.

At the same time, there is evidence that the industry knew about health harms decades ago and misled the public about the health and environmental risks.

A 2023 report from the Climate Investigations Center, which was also reported on by NPR, uncovered documents dating back more than fifty years that demonstrate that the gas industry knew about the potential health harms of gas stoves, but funded industry-friendly science to avoid regulation. 

“The gas industry itself has engaged in a decades-long campaign to attempt to thwart and discredit that scientific research,” Scarr from US PIRG said. “The research piled up in particular over the last couple of years, but it also dates back decades.”

That documentation will surely provide ammunition to plaintiffs, who are targeting a growing number of gas companies over the harms of their product.

But in the Eversource case, the plaintiffs do not even need to demonstrate harm, or prove that the gas utility knew about health risks. Adkins said the case is much more straightforward, aimed at deceptive advertising. He said the burden of proof will be on Eversource to demonstrate that gas has positive attributes in order to back up claims that gas is “clean,” “safe,” and “good for the environment,” which they cannot do.

“That’s because there aren’t any studies to suggest that cooking with gas in the home is healthy and good and clean,” he said. “The burden is on them to support what we allege are false claims.”

Adkins drew an analogy to the tobacco industry, which published ads decades ago that said doctors recommended a certain brand of cigarettes. At the same time, the tobacco industry questioned the science around the health harms from smoking.

“That’s exactly what tobacco did. And that, of course, was an unsuccessful avenue for the tobacco industry, as I believe it will also be here,” Adkins said. “Even though it’s actually irrelevant for purposes of burden.”

In a statement to Gas Outlook, William Hinkle, a spokesperson for Eversource, said that the utility is helping Massachusetts achieve its climate goals, and he cited a first-in-the-nation networked geothermal project in Framingham that the company is spearheading.

“We are committed to a clean energy future and believe the claims in this lawsuit lack legal or factual merit and will defend the company’s record vigorously,” Hinkle said.

Gas Outlook asked for evidence that supported Eversource’s claims that gas is “clean,” “safe,” and “good for the environment,” but Hinkle did not address that question.

Eversource is far from the only gas utility that promotes the benefits of gas, but Adkins said he was not aware of another similar case. Yet, he emphasised that the case is not charting new legal ground.

“I don’t really think it’s that novel. This is old law, applying old tactics. I wouldn’t say it’s new,” Adkins said. “False advertising goes back centuries, as do consumer protection statutes. Maybe it’s the first time it’s been brought against a particular gas company. But this is old school. Old school in terms of the infraction, old school in terms of applied law. So, I’d like to accept that this is so novel, but in fact it’s run of the mill.”