Science

From gas stoves to dishwashers and NOW laundry detergent: How home appliances are in the crosshairs of America’s green crackdown… but what does the evidence actually show about their effect on emissions?


A democratic New York City lawmaker last week introduced a bill to ban laundry detergent packs like Tide Pods – in the latest attempt to crack down on household goods because of climate change fears. 

Stores and laundromats would face a fine of up to $1,200 for repeated violations.

It’s the latest in a series of green regulations that target household products, rules that have frustrated some consumers and business groups.

Detergent packs join the ranks of gas stoves, washing machines, refrigerators, single-use plastic bags, home water heaters, and plastic straws as products that lawmakers want to regulate.

Proponents of these regulations tout their environmental and human health benefits, arguing that there is little cost to the regular person.

Opponents such as biostatistician Louis Anthony Cox Jr., speaking to DailyMail.com, criticize these rules for being anti-consumer nanny state overreaches that are based on flimsy science.

Federal, state, and local regulators have implemented a range of new rules over the past decade governing everyday items like plastic grocery bags and clothes washers. In some cases, the scientific evidence for these rules is stronger than in others

Federal, state, and local regulators have implemented a range of new rules over the past decade governing everyday items like plastic grocery bags and clothes washers. In some cases, the scientific evidence for these rules is stronger than in others

For example, gas stoves made headlines last year when federal regulators said they were considering banning them. The evidence was strong, but not conclusive, and it may have cost consumers about $1,000 to switch to electric induction stoves, plus a couple dollars more per month to operate them.

One major critic of some of these consumer regulations told DailyMail.com that, whether or not they are based on good science, the rules require people to buy new products, waste resources that could be better spent elsewhere, deprive consumers of choices, and needlessly worry people that their daily activities are killing them – or the environment.

The trouble is that it can be difficult for science to definitively prove that replacing gas stoves or inefficient dishwashers is actually helping human or environmental health – at least not without making the change and tracking data for years.

Even in cases where there is strong evidence supporting new rules, science can rarely provide us with an answer that is absolutely certain. 

For that reason, there may be no way for science to say for certain whether a ban on plastic straws will help the environment, for example.

But there are ways good science can inform laws, experts told DailyMail.com.

And understanding the evidence can help us make informed decisions for ourselves and our loved ones, as well as recognize when lawmakers on both sides of the political spectrum are making faulty arguments. 

Detergent packs are made of the quick-dissolving plastic called PVA, which spreads into the environment during wastewater processing

Detergent pods polluting our water

The ‘Pods Are Plastic‘ bill targeting detergent pods was introduced last week by New York City Councilman James Gennaro.

If passed, the law would go into effect at the beginning of 2026, banning retailers, wholesalers, and any other vendor from selling laundry pods, dishwasher pods, laundry sheets, or dryer sheets that contain polyvinyl alcohol (PVA).

The justification was that PVA contributes to pollution in waterways. 

WHY DETERGENT PACKS ARE SO DANGEROUS

Laundry pods contain laundry detergent, softener, and other soap types enclosed in dissolvable plastic discs.

The chemistry of the pods is roughly the same as in liquid detergents (including alkylbenzenesulfonates – the most common organic compound found in detergent).

The water-soluble pouch is typically made of polyvinyl alcohol (PVA) or a derivative of it.

Although the formulas are similar, a detergent pod’s liquids may contain only 10 percent water compared to 50 percent in liquid detergents.

Because of this, the solution inside of the packets have a much higher concentration than conventional detergent – powder or liquid.

Detergent pods work because PVA, a see-through synthetic material, dissolves easily in water, releasing the detergent inside. Laundry sheets are also made of PVA, but in their case the detergent is infused into the material and is released as the sheet dissolves in wash water.

Even though PVA dissolves in water, it does not actually break down into other, more basic molecules in the environment.

Around 17,000 metric tons of PVA per year end up in wastewater treatment systems from detergent pods alone, according to a 2021 study. Nearly two-thirds of that ends up in the environment as sludge after treatment, while about 16 percent stays in the water.

This means PVA belongs to the dreaded category of microplastics, microscopic bits of plastic that contaminate the environment and fail to decompose.

Microplastics have been found in 90 percent of bottled water brands, and they have been linked to a wide range of human health conditions including infertility and cancer.

PVA specifically can foam up in high enough concentrations, which could block fish from taking in oxygen – but this is not something that has proven to happen in the small concentrations that PVA exists in treated wastewater.

The human health concerns surrounding detergent pods has also been marginal.

Six adults with dementia and two children have died since 2012 after mistakenly eating the brightly colored pods.

These health risks come from the detergent in the pods, though, not the PVA itself, which is not known to cause serious health issues – at least in the short term

A high-profile case of a turtle with a straw in its nose helped get the ball rolling on a whole spate of straw bans

A high-profile case of a turtle with a straw in its nose helped get the ball rolling on a whole spate of straw bans

Plastic straws account for just 0.025% of world’s plastic pollution

In 2015, a disturbing video went viral, showing a team of marine biologists slowly pulling a plastic straw from a sea turtle’s nose.

The animal’s pain is apparent, blood trickling from its nostril as biologists struggle to remove the straw. Be warned, the 8-minute video is excruciating.

This emotional video helped spark the movement to ban plastic straws, an initiative that led multiple US states and cities to consider plastic straw bans – much to consumers’ dismay.

Since 2015, Seattle has banned plastic straws, as has Washington, D.C.

California, Oregon, Colorado, and New York City have banned them unless customers specifically request them. Many other US states and cities, too, have implemented full or partial straw bans.

Companies, too: Starbucks phased out plastic straws and stirrers, and McDonalds has banned them in its non-US locations. Some hotel chains and airlines, too, have ditched them in favor of paper straws or nothing.

It’s impossible to tally the true risk plastic straws pose to sea creatures, but it is possible to show how much plastic straws contribute to the world’s plastic pollution: 0.025 percent, according to National Geographic.

Out of the 8 million metric tons of plastic pollution going into oceans each year, only one-one quarter of one-tenth percent is plastic straws.

Clearly the larger problem is plastics in general. But banning all plastics is a much tougher task.

‘I think the question of how (and when) regulators should act on the basis of realistically imperfect information is one of the great questions of our age,’ Cox, the former chair of the EPA’s Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee, told DailyMail.com.

Some states that have banned plastic straws also banned other single-use plastics like grocery bags and takeout utensils, but in many places plastic straw bans have not been accompanied by any additional rules on plastic.

Anyone who has used a paper straw knows it can be tough to use, as they often start coming apart from the moisture. 

‘Depriving consumers of choices they would prefer, in order to create projected benefits that do not actually occur, can lead to higher costs, worse performance, and perhaps greater risks than result from leaving more choices open to consumers,’ Cox said.

In the case of plastic straw bans, that benefit that doesn’t occur is a reduction in plastic waste. 

So for these bans to truly be science-backed, they may need to incorporate all or most single-use plastics.

Regulations like this risk causing ‘alert fatigue,’ said Cox.

‘Asking people to worry about too many everyday exposures risks desensitizing them to the ones that really matter,’ he said. ‘Paying closer attention to causation rather than correlation can help focus warnings and regulations where they actually make a difference.’

Front-loading and top-loading washing machines were subject to different rules, under a set of Trump-era guidelines meant to offer consumers quicker, less efficient machines

Front-loading and top-loading washing machines were subject to different rules, under a set of Trump-era guidelines meant to offer consumers quicker, less efficient machines

Washing machines – the evidence is a head-spin

One of the main arguments against high-efficiency washing machines is that a cycle can take too long and won’t be enough to get a load clean – requiring an additional load, which used up more water and electricity than one non-energy-efficient load would have in the first place. 

This was the argument used by the Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) when it sued the Biden federal government for repealing Trump-era rules on dishwasher and clothes washer efficiency.

Washing machines are thought to contribute about 62 million metric tons of greenhouse gases each year, as well as using 19 billion cubic meters of water. 

In 2020, President Trump signed into effect rules that allowed manufacturers to make machines that ran more quickly, though they used more water and electricity.

This rule enabled top-loading laundry cycles shorter than 30 minutes and front-loading laundry cycles shorter than 45 minutes 

The Biden administration overturned the rule, but CEI won.

Trump’s original rule was not based on scientific data about dishwashers or clothes washers, but on anecdotes. The same was true of Biden’s executive order overturning the rule, and the same was true of the CEI lawsuit.

In other words, none of the rules on washing machines, neither those in favor of quick, low-efficiency units, or those banning them, are based on science.

Rather they are based on the arguments of lawyers – and a judgment from the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. 

Single-use plastic grocery bags make up a much greater portion of ocean trash than straws do, but most bans have not been enforced

Single-use plastic grocery bags make up a much greater portion of ocean trash than straws do, but most bans have not been enforced

Plastic bags

Just like plastic straws, single-use plastic grocery bags are increasingly unwelcome in the US.

Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Maine, New York, Oregon, and Vermont have all banned them.

San Francisco had already banned them in 2007, and the rest of California followed suit in 2014. 

And just like straws, some of the early messaging around bags had to do with sea turtles: They confuse them for jellyfish, eating them and choking.

Despite the ban, many critics argue that the rules aren’t working – because people simply aren’t following them, and nobody is enforcing them.

The science behind a ban mostly involves what does happen to the existing bags:

Less than 10 percent of plastic bags get recycled, and they make up about 8 percent of plastic waste in the ocean – around 3.3 million tons.

So eliminating single-use plastic bags could put a significant dent in that waste. The question is whether Americans will adopt reusable alternatives. 

Total bag volumes in New Jersey, for instance, fell by 60 percent according to a study from this January. Unfortunately, the effect on carbon emissions may not be there.

According to that estimate, the carbon emissions from making nonwoven cloth bags is six times that of making plastic ones. And cotton bags, too, represent an increase in greenhouse gases because of how CO2-heavy cotton production is, according to a study from Columbia University.

New energy-efficient water heaters may cost more in the short term, but the science behind energy efficiency is well settled between industry and government

New energy-efficient water heaters may cost more in the short term, but the science behind energy efficiency is well settled between industry and government

Water heaters 

The Biden administration proposed new energy efficiency rules for home water heaters in July of last year. 

Water heaters eat up about 13 percent of Americans’ annual residential energy use and utility costs, and the new pumps are twice as efficient as older models. 

Officials said at the time that the new regulations to impose energy efficiency standards would save consumers $11.4 billion on energy and water bills annually. 

It would be nearly impossible to track how much these standards changed people’s energy and water bills. 

Nonetheless, water heater standards had not been updated since 2010.

One of the main changes under the new guidelines, which take effect in 2029, will be that new electric heaters must employ heat pumps to improve their energy efficiency.

Heat pumps have not been shown to offer worse performance than existing models, which means there is less risk that the ‘replacement’ will be worse than the ‘old’ version – one of the potential harms of green regulations that Cox identified. 

‘Regulations that focus on the risks attributed incorrectly to an established product without considering the risks from its replacements may end up doing more harm than good,’ he said.

New water heaters may be more expensive, but consumers should make back that cost over time, Johanna Neumann, a senior director at the nonprofit Environment America Research and Policy Center, told the Washington Post at the time.

‘Appliance standards are an unsung hero in our work to address climate change and transition to wiser energy use,’ Neumann said, ‘and this rule is the king of them all.’

Questions of consumer choice aside, these standards are based on science. The Department of Energy has negotiated with pro-industry groups like CEI over the rules for how it rates appliance efficiency, so even the appliance industry is in agreement with the measurements. 

It is not debatable that these high-efficiency water heaters cost less energy, and since most will only be going into new construction where the materials to make them would have gone to making a conventional heater, there is no greater resource cost, either. 

Gas stoves have been shown to emit nitrogen oxide, carbon monoxide, and fine particulate matter, each of which has been shown to have negative effects on human health. But scientists and lawmakers still don’t agree whether they should be banned.

Gas stoves

In January 2023, gas stoves became a political battleground after a commissioner on the US Consumer Product Safety Commission said that the federal government may consider banning the products if manufacturers could not make them safer.

His comment set of a fight that included lawmakers accusing scientific researchers of being in the pocket of the climate movement and even the Chinese Communist Party, and Biden’s Department of Energy later issued a statement saying there was no plan to ban gas stoves.

The safety at issue has to do with the gases emitted by burning natural gas.

Multiple studies have shown that gas stoves give off nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, and fine particulate matter, often at higher levels than would trigger air quality warnings outdoors.

All of these substances have been shown to be unsafe for humans to breathe. 

In one of the most cited pieces of evidence on the health effects of indoor gas stoves, a 2022 study found that 12.7 percent of childhood asthma cases could be blamed on having a gas stove in the home. 

That paper was based on a combined analysis of 27 different observational studies in Europe and North America. An observational study examines the possible cause-and-effect link between two things – in this case, having a gas stove in the home and having asthma.

Observational studies can not prove cause and effect for absolute certain, but 27 different studies combine to strongly indicate that there may be a connection.

Because it would be unethical to perform a randomized clinical trial where some children are assigned to homes with gas stoves and some to homes with electric, it may never be possible to determine with absolute certainty whether gas stoves contribute to asthma.

But that may not be necessary. After all, the link between cancer and smoking was proven with observational studies – same as any cancer-causing substance or behavior.

Scientists like Louis Anthony Cox Jr. have attacked gas stove regulations for not being based on sound science

Scientists like Louis Anthony Cox Jr. have attacked gas stove regulations for not being based on sound science

Nonetheless, not all researchers accept the conclusion that gas stoves contribute to asthma. 

Cox, a biostatistician, wrote that the conclusions drawn in an observational study can’t necessarily be used to make predictions about other scenarios. 

‘The qualitative finding that reducing exposure to gas stove pollution would reduce the burden of childhood asthma in the United States has no demonstrated validity,’ he wrote in March of last year.

In other words, data collected in one situation may not apply to another situation.

Cox has been accused of narrowly interpreting scientific evidence, by critics who argued that observational studies should be sufficient for questions of human health.

He has written extensively on the idea that if lawmakers want to ban something, they should have to show science saying that the alternative is better.

Appliance manufacturers and industry groups arguing against a ban have argued that the cost to homeowners would be unreasonable.

‘A ban on gas cooking appliances would remove an affordable and preferred technology used in more than 40 percent of homes across the country,’ Jill Notini, spokesperson for industry trade group Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers, told DailyMail.com. 

For now, the federal government has not moved forward with a ban, after public backlash caused a rethink.

But lawmakers and the courts in California are currently battling it out over a proposed ban, and New York Governor Kathy Hochul has said that she wants to ban gas stoves in new buildings by 2030. 

Not everyone can afford to replace their stove, so if you have a gas stove and are concerned about indoor air quality, doctors recommend opening a window or turning on the vent fan whenever you use it. 

Industry groups claimed high-efficiency dishwashers require multiple cycles to get dishes clean, but they had no data to back that up. Neither did the Biden administration when it killed special rules around less efficient dishwashers

Industry groups claimed high-efficiency dishwashers require multiple cycles to get dishes clean, but they had no data to back that up. Neither did the Biden administration when it killed special rules around less efficient dishwashers

Dishwashers

In the same rule affecting washing machines, the Trump administration had created a special category for and dishwashers with cycles under 60 minutes. 

But last year the US Department of Energy announced new energy efficiency standards for home appliances.

One of these involved cutting the limit for water used by dishwashers from 5 gallons to 3.3, and improving energy efficiency by about 30 percent.

‘The efficiency levels proposed in today’s rule reflect that there are models available today that can meet improved energy and water standards, while providing the cleaning performance that consumers expect from their dishwashers,’ read the DOE statement on the new standards.

Critics once again attacked the rules for limiting consumer choice.

‘Consumers will pay the real price,’ Notini told DailyMail.com. ‘The Department of Energy has proposed very stringent standards for home appliances that will require higher upfront costs to purchase a product.’

‘Manufacturers just want to be able to deliver high performing, fully featured products at costs that consumers of all incomes can afford. The DoE is making that very difficult with the standards they are proposing,’ she added.

But in January of this year, a federal court disagreed and said that the new rules were not only overly restrictive, but also counterproductive.

That may have been a political decision, but as with water heaters, efficiency is difficult to debate – especially when government and industry alike have agreed on the standards for measuring it. 

As to whether the cost justifies the energy savings over time, that is a personal consumer decision. 

The Federal Trade Commission (FTC)  has a set of Green Guides that lay out how companies are allowed to market their products.

Last updated in 2012, the Green Guides govern when a company can and can’t say its product is compostable, recyclable, “free of” an ingredient, produced by renewable energy, and so on.

But these rules have not kept up with the pace of green regulations and the technologies involved in home appliances.

Unfortunately, as this review has found, many of the green regulations around appliances – as well as the pushback against these regulations – are based more in emotion and politics than in science. 



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