Since the early 1970s, the gas industry has successfully employed Big Tobacco’s tactics to manufacture and magnify controversy over links between gas stove emissions and respiratory illness, obscuring science and undermining public health.
The gas industry funded its own studies in the 1970s and 1980s using the same laboratories, management consultants, and statisticians as its tobacco counterparts – and was advised by the same public relations company that masterminded the tobacco strategy, Hill & Knowlton. The gas industry’s tactics influenced regulatory decision-making at the Environmental Protection Agency and Consumer Product Safety Commission and have continued up to the present day.
As new scientific findings reawaken long-standing concerns about the health impacts of indoor gas cooking, the gas industry has launched a barrage of attacks, casting doubt by making spurious complaints against academic studies, framing discussion of the issue as “reckless,” and hiring influencers to push back against the latest evidence.
Climate Investigations Center’s new report, “Burning Questions: A history of the gas industry’s campaign to manufacture controversy over the health risks of gas stove emissions,” outlines the gas industry’s efforts over five decades to manufacture and magnify controversy over links between gas stove emissions and respiratory illness – obscuring science and undermining public health.
Evidence uncovered by the Climate Investigations Center reveals that:
- The gas industry was aware of its ‘NOx problem” at least at early as 1970. According to the minutes of a government advisory panel composed entirely of high-level gas and utility company executives, the gas industry was requested to “take a look” at its NOx (nitrogen oxides) problem in September 1970.
- That same year, EPA researchers launched the first epidemiological studies into the health effects of indoor nitrogen dioxide (NO2) exposure from gas stoves. These studies, which indicated that people who lived in homes with gas stoves were more susceptible to respiratory ailments, would soon attract national attention, threatening to create a potential health scandal for the gas industry.
- Emulating the tobacco industry’s response to growing concerns over the health impacts of smoking, the American Gas Association (AGA) funded its own health effects research program. In 1972, AGA began sponsoring epidemiological studies into the health effects of gas stove emissions at Battelle Laboratories – a private lab which had a history of working for individual cigarette manufacturers as well as the Council for Tobacco Research. Battelle also had a proven track record of publishing information “consistent with the Sponsor’s interests and wishes.”
- AGA-funded studies found no association between gas stoves and respiratory illness despite a growing body of independent, non-industry-affiliated research identifying a positive association between nitrogen dioxide emissions from gas stoves and respiratory problems. The AGA-funded studies were used by industry to push back against escalating calls for regulatory action on indoor air pollution.
- AGA funding of this research was not disclosed in independent journals like Environmental Research, a fact that remains true for one of the most influential of the studies – Keller et al. – which is still cited in papers to this day.
- During this time, the gas industry received advice from Hill & Knowlton – the same public relations company that masterminded the tobacco strategy – specifically from the same Hill & Knowlton executives who had been responsible for managing the firm’s tobacco account. These executives told the gas industry that it needed to stay ahead of its “critics” by mounting “massive, consistent, long-range public relations programs” to cope with its problems, and recommended tactics similar to those the PR firm had deployed on behalf of the tobacco industry. “Continuing research … must be part of your daily activities,” advised Hill & Knowlton.
- In the 1980s the gas industry funded attacks on existing science through the Gas Research Institute (GRI), hiring paid-for consultants to criticize the scientific literature, and using these critiques to influence public opinion and advocate against regulatory action. The GRI also funded further epidemiological studies.
- The gas industry’s influence campaign successfully manufactured a “controversy” over NO2 and health that obstructed legislative and regulatory action. As part of a wider mission to portray gas as clean, the gas industry’s efforts reshaped independent research and influenced regulatory proceedings. For forty years, the Consumer Product Safety Commission (CPSC) and Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) have deferred stronger action. Their standards for NO2 pollution still stop at people’s front doors today.
The Climate Investigations Center sent detailed questions (see below) to the American Gas Association about its sponsored epidemiological research into the health effects of gas stove emissions, the disclosure of funding the studies, contracts with Battelle, and the relationship between Hill & Knowlton. AGA ignored most of the questions. It sent the following statement from President and CEO Karen Harbert:
“If there is one thing that is clear about the natural gas industry, we do not stand in place. The natural gas industry has collaborated with subject matter experts and research to develop analysis and scientific studies to inform and educate regulators about the safety of gas cooking appliances and ways to help reduce cooking process emissions, regardless of heating source, from impacting indoor air quality. Our focus is on the facts and independent analysis. The available body of scientific research, including high-quality research and consensus health reviews conducted independently of industry, does not provide sufficient or consistent evidence demonstrating chronic health hazards from natural gas ranges.”
This report presents evidence that the gas industry has employed Big Tobacco’s tactics to manufacture and magnify controversy over the health impacts of gas stove emissions since the early 1970s. It also presents evidence from this same period showing that Hill & Knowlton, a public relations company that was a leading advisor of tobacco companies, shared insight and strategy with the gas industry.
In 1972, Richard Darrow of Hill & Knowlton advised the gas industry to counter the challenges it faced by mounting “massive, consistent, long-range public relations programs.” The evidence laid out here shows how the industry heeded Darrow’s advice, mounting exactly such a program in the decades since the 1970s – a program that continues to this day.
From this perspective, the gas industry’s deployment of tobacco-style tactics to defeat “proposals for regulation and restrictions” (as advocated by Hill & Knowlton in 1972) have played a fundamental role in ensuring a lack of effective action in the U.S. against the “menace” of indoor air pollution.
However, as new scientific research again puts gas stove emissions in the spotlight, a new opportunity exists for policymakers and regulators to take action – this time free of the misinformation the gas industry promotes.
CIC’s list of questions sent to AGA:
It’s our understanding that in 1972 AGA sponsored its own epidemiological research into the health effects of gas stove emissions. A 1981 AGA paper, “Putting Gas Range Emissions in Perspective” presented at the International Symposium on Indoor Air Pollution, Health and Energy Conservation at the University of Massachusetts (printed in the February 1982 edition of AGA Monthly) states that the following studies were sponsored by AGA:
- Mitchell, R.; R. W. Cote, R.R. Lanese, M.D. Keller, “Survey of the Incidence of Respiratory Illness in Households Using Gas and Electric Cookery,” Presented at the Annual Meeting of the Air Pollution Control Association, 1974;
- Keller, M.D.; R.R. Lanese, R.I. Mitchell, R.W. Cote, “Respiratory Illness in Households Using Gas and Electricity for Cooking. I. Survey of Incidence,” Environmental Research, 19, pp.495-503, 1979;
- Keller, M.D.; R.R. Lanese, R.I. Mitchell, R.W. Cote, “Respiratory Illness in Households Using Gas and Electricity for Cooking,” Environmental Research, 19, pp.504-515, 1979.
We understand that these studies were conducted by two researchers from Battelle Columbus Laboratories (R.I. Mitchell and R.W. Cote) and two researchers from Ohio State University College of Medicine (M.D. Keller and R.R. Lanese).
Can you tell us why AGA’s funding of these studies was not disclosed in Environmental Research, 1979; or in the Proceedings of the Air Pollution Control Association, 1974; or in the Proceedings of the Third Conference on Natural Gas Research and Technology, 1974?
Did AGA disclose that it sponsored these studies in any public forum in the 1970s or 1980s apart from in the 1981 AGA paper “Putting Gas Range Emissions in Perspective”?
Regarding this research, is AGA still in possession of these contracts between AGA and Battelle; and between AGA and the Ohio State researchers? If so, are you able to provide us with these contracts or details of these contracts?
We also understand that during an AGA-INGAA public relations workshop in April 1972, Hill & Knowlton president Richard Darrow was asked to comment on a survey commissioned by AGA into consumer attitudes and to suggest several ways to cope with problems that the gas industry was facing at that time. We also understand that Carl Thompson, head of Hill & Knowlton’s Department of Environmental and Consumer Affairs, participated in a public panel discussion at the AGA/INGAA public relations workshop in 1973; and that Ward Stevenson, Hill & Knowlton Senior Vice President, addressed the AGA/INGAA public relations workshop in 1974.
Could you clarify the nature of the relationship between Hill & Knowlton and AGA during the 1970s?
Did AGA pay Hill & Knowlton for services during the 1970s? If so, are you able to provide us with these contracts or details of these contracts?
Our research found that during the 1970s AGA pursued actions to manufacture and magnify uncertainty about the links between gas stove emissions and respiratory illness, aimed at influencing and avoiding regulation. Do you have any comment on that?