Daily exposure to toxic smoke from polluting, open fires and inefficient fuels is one of the world’s biggest – but least well-known – killers. Penetrating deep into the lungs of its victims, this acrid smoke causes a range of deadly chronic and acute health effects such as child pneumonia, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart disease, as well as low birth-weights in children born to mothers whose pregnancies are spent breathing toxic fumes from traditional cookstoves. The evidence is robust and compelling: exposure to household air pollution (HAP) is responsible for a staggering number of preventable illnesses and deaths each year. Indeed, the World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that exposure to smoke from the simple act of cooking constitutes the fourth leading risk factor for disease in developing countries, and causes over 4 million premature deaths per year – exceeding deaths attributable to malaria or tuberculosis. In addition, tens of millions more fall sick with illnesses that could readily be prevented with improved adoption of clean and efficient cookstoves and fuels.
Exposure to these toxic fumes is greatest among women and young children, who spend a disproportionate amount of time near open fires tending to the family meal, or schoolchildren who may study by the weak light of an open flame. Typical wood-fired cookstoves and open fires emit small particles, carbon monoxide, and other noxious fumes that are up to 100 times higher than the recommended limits set by WHO, and in some settings, considerably higher.
The illnesses caused by smoke exposure from toxic cooking methods lead to serious problems for the health and livelihoods of these families, hampering their ability to escape grinding poverty. Women in developing countries are at risk of head and spinal injuries, and pregnancy complications from the strenuous task of carrying heavy loads of firewood or other fuels, and may also suffer from gender-based violence, animal attacks, dehydration, and skin disorders. Frequent exposure to cookstove smoke can also cause disabling health impacts like cataracts, and is the leading cause of blindness in developing countries. Health effects are especially deadly for children under the age of five in developing countries: nearly half of all pneumonia deaths among this age group occur as a result of smoke exposure.
Burns from open fires and unsafe cookstoves are another insidious risk faced by poor households dependent on kerosene, open fires, and unstable metal or clay cookstoves, contributing to a substantial percentage of the estimated 195,000 burn deaths that occur annually. Because burns require prompt and sophisticated medical intervention often lacking in remote areas of the world, such injuries often result in debilitating scarring and loss of movement in their victims.
Clean Cooking Solutions
While a range of social and environmental benefits can be achieved through the adoption of cleaner, more modern stoves and fuels, research evidence focused on children’s pneumonia suggests that dramatic reductions in exposures are required to achieve health benefits. As a result, substantial health benefits can likely only be achieved with intensive, near exclusive adoption of extremely low emission technologies.
The sustained use of cleaner, more modern stoves and fuels can dramatically reduce smoke emissions, and resulting exposure, which can reduce the burden of disease associated with household air pollution.