SEATTLE — Simple cookstoves are silently impeding progress for better global health, responsible for four million premature deaths every year. As 2.8 billion people still rely on these damaging stoves inside the home, understanding the relationship between indoor cooking and health can save millions of lives.
Cooking with inefficient fuel sources — biomass from animal waste, wood, charcoal, coal and waste from crops — inside the home is extremely damaging to health. With this type of cooking, indoor air pollution levels can soar to 200-300 times the World Health Organization (WHO) safety limit. This equates to burning 400 cigarettes each hour, all within a confined dwelling.
Fine particle emissions released from simple cookstoves increase the risks of asthma, pneumonia, pulmonary disease, stroke and heart disease, among other illnesses. Household air pollution caused by indoor stoves is responsible for an estimated 50 percent of deaths from pneumonia in children under five. Related deaths outnumber those from malaria and tuberculosis, according to the WHO.
But these particles do not treat all people equally. Women, children and elderly people in developing countries are most likely to breathe smoke and damage their health. Women and girls, typically responsible for acquiring fuel sources, are disproportionately exposed to health risks and gender-based violence while gathering supplies. This common practice also requires inordinate amounts of time and energy which could be spent on money-making endeavors.
Most people who rely on simple cookstoves live in a majority of African countries and many Asian countries, some that are already struggling with poverty. As indoor cooking and health especially threaten the wellbeing of vulnerable populations — most often women and girls in poor areas of the world — it presents an inequity that reinforces a cycle of poverty and disadvantage.
This type of cooking also sends black carbon into the air, harming more than just humans. This unfriendly substance accounts for 25-50 percent of airborne carbon dioxide- and 84 percent is released from cooking in developing countries. Indoor cooking contributes to 12 percent of global air pollution, which is named the greatest environmental risk to health.
However, many concerns over indoor cooking and health present a silver lining: these issues are preventable. Switching to clean cookstoves can put an end to further air pollution and its detrimental health impacts. According to the World Bank, top methods for preventing the impact of indoor cooking and air pollution include reducing exposure to hazards in the air and stopping them from the source. These tools can be distilled to improving combustion efficiency for stoves; the better the fuel use, the better the health outcomes.
Improvements begin in the kitchen by switching from open fires in simple stoves to better-designed models that rely on alternative fuels such as ethanol and biogas. However, stoves that use alternative fuels still pollute the air; switching to renewable electricity like solar and wind ultimately brings the greatest returns. Because renewable fuel sources are increasingly cheap, accessible and non-polluting, they are already gaining traction in an emerging international marketplace.
Making the switch to clean cooking also improves economic stability, in many cases fighting poverty. Instead of buying fuel, which can be costly for many people living in or close to poverty, clean stoves are more economically efficient. Clean Cookstoves, a leader in the industry, explains that “clean cookstoves can quickly pay for themselves in health, economic, and environmental benefits.”
However, some barriers are slowing progress, such as a consistent lack of access to information about health implications of unclean cookstoves for many people using them. In similar scenarios, many developing countries do not implement testing or policies around simple cookstoves. This makes it more difficult to improve conditions.
The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is improving cooking conditions around the world, with target areas in eight developing countries including China, India and Ghana. Its well-known Clean Cooking Forum is set to take place in New Delhi in October 2017. Currently, the organization is working to place 100 million clean cookstoves around the world by 2020.
The same sources urge the importance of using international policies to uphold developments for clean cookstoves. Progress also stems from economics; turning fuel efficient stoves into a profitable market for developing countries can incite economic expansion for the sector, alongside improving health.
Other forces are taking clean cooking into their own hands. Prakti, a clean cookstove company in India, produces designs that can reduce indoor cooking emissions by 90 percent. Prakti partners with 16 influential allies including the World Food Program, USAID and the U.N. Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.
Cleaner stoves “could save millions of lives over the coming decades, while improving countless others, empowering women, creating opportunities for the poor, and reducing environmental impacts,” explains Clean Cookstoves. This makes indoor cooking and health into an avenue ripe for improvement in places where it is needed most.
– Cleo Krejci