Smoke – The killer in the kitchen

Poverty condemns half of humanity across the globe to cook with solid fuels on inefficient stoves. Smoke in homes from these cook stoves is the fourth greatest risk factor for death and disease in the world’s poorest countries, and is linked to 1.6 million deaths per year. Yet the many have largely neglected it. Sad that women and children are most at risk from the killer in the kitchen, as they spend considerable time around the cooking fire. Reducing indoor air pollution across the developing world would contribute significantly to achieving the internationally agreed Millennium Development Goals, in particular the aim to reduce child mortality by two-thirds by 2015 first three.
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Globally more than a third of humanity, 2.4 billion people, burn biomass (wood, crop residues, charcoal and dung) on open fire, i.e. three stone stoves for cooking and heating. The smoke from burning these fuels on open fires turns kitchens in the world’s poorest countries into death traps. Indoor air pollution from the burning of solid fuels kills over 1.6 million people, predominately women and children, each year. This is more than three people per minute. It is a death toll almost as great as that caused by unsafe water and sanitation, and greater than that caused by malaria. Smoke in the home is one of the world’s leading child killers, claiming nearly one million children’s lives each year.
The main concern with the use of crude biomass cooking stoves is their destructive influence on human welfare and natural resources. When used indoors, three stone cooking stoves lead to severe health issues such as chronic lung diseases, acute respiratory infections, cataracts, blindness, and adverse effects on pregnancy. Indoor air pollution is not an indiscriminate killer. It is the poor who rely on the lower grades of fuel and have least access to cleaner technologies. Specifically, indoor air pollution affects women and small children far more than any other sector of society. Women typically spend three to seven hours per day by the fire, exposed to smoke, often with young children nearby.

On current trends an extra 200 million people worldwide will rely on biomass for their cooking and heating needs by 2030, according to the International Energy Agency. In parts of Central Asia where gas and electricity used to be available people are reverting back to using biomass as their main fuel source. In Tajikistan since 1991 the incidence of acute respiratory infection, the world’s greatest child killer, has risen by 35% largely as a result of burning wood indoors.
Inefficient biomass stoves also force people (again, most often women) to spend much of their time collecting fuel. The environmental degradation caused by biomass stoves is equally problematic. When wood is used as a primary fuel, inefficient cooking methods lead to large-scale deforestation, soil erosion, desertification and emissions of greenhouse gases.
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Billions of people would lead a healthier life if their exposure to lethal levels of smoke were reduced. Public awareness of the health risks of smoke is a crucial first step. The most effective way to reduce smoke in the home is to switch to a cleaner fuel, such as liquid petroleum gas (LPG), kerosene or biogas. However, the vast majority of people at risk are too poor to change to a cleaner fuel, or have no access to modern fuels. In these homes, the answer will be to reduce exposure, for example by using well designed energy efficient cook stoves, or smoke hoods which can reduce indoor air pollution. Cooking is a deeply cultural and domestic task and communities themselves, particularly the women, must be directly involved in developing solutions that suit their circumstances.

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