About three billion people, particularly in developing regions of Africa, Latin America and Asia, use open fires to cook and heat their homes. The fuels used in these fires–wood, charcoal, plant matter and animal dung–create smoke and harmful air pollution (carbon monoxide, black carbon and other particulates). This pollution can lead to lung cancer, stroke, and other heart and lung diseases, such as bronchitis, pneumonia, emphysema and ischaemic heart disease (reduced blood supply to the heart). In 2012, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 4.3 million people died from the diseases described above as a result of exposure to indoor air pollution. Some emissions from these fires, like black carbon and carbon dioxide, also contribute to global climate change.
Governments, humanitarian groups and other organizations, both in these regions and across the world, are trying to address this problem. One strategy is to provide cleaner burning fuels, like ethanol, propane and kerosene, to populations that rely on solid fuel fires for cooking and heating. Another strategy is to provide cookstoves that burn solid fuel more efficiently, which would reduce the amount of fuel used and, therefore, the amount of smoke produced. Both of these options are being implemented in different places throughout the world with varying degrees of success. One study conducted by researchers at Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology found that in Orissa, India households with more efficient stoves often used them in conjunction with their old stoves, and use of the improved stoves deteriorated over time as households did not properly use and maintain the stoves or invest the time and money to fix them. As a result, the health and air quality benefits of the more efficient stoves lessened after the first year of use.
In an effort to try to address some of the challenges associated with implementing improved cookstoves and cleaner fuels, the United Nations Foundation is leading an initiative called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves with the goal to “foster the adoption of clean cookstoves and fuels in 100 million households by 2020.” The Alliance has identified several issues that make adoption of clean cookstoves challenging. Some of those issues include cost of a new stove, diverse needs of consumers (different cultures cook differently and need stoves that reflect those differences) and lack of knowledge from end users about the health risks associated with traditional cooking methods. The Alliance is conducting studies and supporting efforts to come up with strategies to address some of these challenges.
What do you think are some challenges of addressing indoor air pollution caused by solid fuel fires for cooking and heating? How can we overcome those challenges? Does the international community have an obligation to help? Why or why not?
E-BOOK: Engineering Is Saving the World with Cookstoves (KQED)
A team of engineers at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, using a user-centered design approach, has developed a more efficient cookstove that is successfully being used in Darfur. The team is currently working on designing a new stove that will reduce particulate emissions in smoke by 90%.