A Deadly Dinner

When people talk about environmental health, they tend to focus on the big, flashy threats – floods, droughts, and toxic waste pollution, to name a few.  But sometimes the most innocent of activities can cause the greatest harm.

Exposure to smoke from cooking fires and traditional stoves is one of the world’s biggest killers.  Over 40% of the world’s population still burns various forms of biomass to cook – coal, wood, charcoal, and more.  The smoke inhalation caused by burning these fuels results in nearly 4 million premature deaths each year, caused by a range of deadly chronic and acute health effects.  Diseases like child pneumonia, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart disease plague communities in which mothers and children primarily are regularly exposed to cooking fumes.  When you add all those deaths up, a simple act like cooking dinner becomes the fourth greatest risk factor for disease in developing countries. 

A woman using a Philips stove with an internal fan.  Photo provided by the Public Health Initiative, credit: Michelle Bashin, MHS, program director of the Public Health Institute’s Cleaner Cookstoves Project.

A woman using a Philips stove with an internal fan. Photo provided by Michelle Bashin, MHS, program director of the Public Health Institute’s Cleaner Cookstoves Project.

In addition to these serious health effects, this method of cooking also has serious environmental implications.  Traditional cooking fires and stoves are highly inefficient and contribute significantly to the rapid depletion of local natural resources in these areas.  This depletion can in turn contribute to a number of other significant health effects like those that we have written about previously on this blog.

The great thing about this is that there is an incredibly easy solution.  Cleaner stoves and high-efficiency stoves are cheap and available for families across the world.  The adoption of these cleaner stoves will save not only millions of lives a year, but will also reduce the risk of natural resource depletion and its associated health risks.

In the meantime, families can work to transition their cooking environments to cleaner and healthier areas by using chimneys, insulated heat cookers, increasing indoor ventilation, and cooking outdoors. While these simple solutions won’t solve every problem, they are an important step towards protecting those in need.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is one organization that is working to address this problem.  Their goal of 100 by ’20 calls for 100 million households to adopt clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels by 2020.  Similarly, through a grant from the CDC, the Public Health Institute is also focusing on this problem, with a program supporting field work in Kenya, Guatemala and India that will improve clean cookstove design and build demand for new technology.  

This post was written by Olivia Noble at the Global Health Council.