The most well-known causes of death in developing countries today include dangers such as unclean drinking water, malnutrition and HIV infection. Cooking, on the other hand, probably would not make the list of recognized killers. However, for the more than 3 billion people who stand over fires to cook every day, preparing food poses just such a life-threatening risk.

The Problem: Traditional Cooking Methods Can Kill

Open fires and primitive cookstoves are fueled by solid materials, including coal and biomass (wood, dung and crop residue). These fuels release harmful particles into the air as they burn. When inhaled on a regular basis, these particles can cause diseases such as asthma, lung disease and pneumonia.

opencookstove-featured.jpgEach year, an estimated 1.9 million people die from the most basic of food safety problems — the negative side effects of these traditional cooking methods. A majority of these deaths occur among women and children. Women in developing countries commonly spend large parts of their days over cooking fires, heating water and preparing family meals. These fires are often lit indoors, where the harmful particles they produce are trapped inside the home.

According to a 2007 report from the World Health Organization, indoor air pollution was the fifth highest cause of death in developing countries with high mortality rates in the year 2000.

Most deaths related to cooking fires occur in African and South Asian countries, particularly in India, but they are also common in other regions, including Latin America and some Eastern European countries.


Health Risks

The particles produced by burning solid fuels produce different diseases depending on a person’s age.

Pneumonia, for example, presents the greatest threat to young children. Children ages 6 to 18 months are particularly likely to develop pneumonia, explains Dr. Henry Falk, former director of the Center for National Environmental Health (CNEH). In fact, Falk says that when it comes to cooking safety, “pneumonia in children is probably the largest category we think about.”

Elderly people, on the other hand, are more likely to develop Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, a condition that makes breathing difficult and severely limits daily activity, says Falk.

Older children and teenagers, he says, are particularly at risk of asthma from repeated exposure to cooking fires.

Heart disease is thought to be yet another risk related to cooking fires. Logic suggests that because smoking cigarettes can lead to heart disease, primitive cooking methods that produce large amounts of smoke, such as coal-burning stoves, could as well. Research is currently being conducted on this issue.

All of these health consequences are exacerbated by the fact that access to good healthcare (or any healthcare at all) is severely limited in many developing nations. Not only do people with these diseases lack access to the antibiotics or vaccinations they might require, they lack the education necessary to cope with their conditions.

“If you’re a kid in a third-world country, you’re not getting access to education about asthma,” says Falk.

Dangers Beyond Disease

The detrimental effects of solid fuel cooking don’t end at disease. Other consequences include vision impairment, low infant birth weight, and burns and other injuries, especially among children.

Gathering fuel to stoke cooking fires presents its own risks as well. As nearby fuel supplies dwindle, women are forced to go farther to find materials. In some regions, women and girls risk rape and other forms of gender-based violence during the up to 20 hours per week they spend away from their communities, according to Leslie Cordes, Interim Executive Director at the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

The Global Alliance: Seeking an Integrated Solution

The Alliance, an initiative of the UN Foundation, was founded in September, 2010 with the goal of helping to eliminate the dangers associated with primitive cooking methods by making clean cookstoves accessible and affordable throughout the world. It was formed as a partnership between government, non-profit and private organizations in order to combine the wide array of existing expertise on clean cookstoves into a unified force for change.

The Solution

What exactly makes a cookstove “clean”? Unlike the traditional “dirty” cookstove, which requires large amounts of fuel to generate enough fire for cooking and produces copious amounts of smoke to boot, clean cookstoves combust fuel with much greater efficiency. They use far less fuel to achieve the same or greater amounts of heat. In other words, they produce more bang for your biomass.


And the less fuel one uses, the less disease-causing particles are released into the air. Women can devote less time to collecting fuel, up to 1 or 2 hours less, according to Falk.

Carl Garrison has witnessed first-hand the positive impact of introducing clean cookstoves to a rural community. When Garrison first arrived in the remote town of Barillas, Guatemala as a volunteer for Rotary International, he says the effects of open cookfires were tangible. The walls of people’s homes, constructed out of wooden boards, were black with soot. The air was sometimes so thick with smoke that his eyes burned and it was hard to see across the room.

The incidence of asthma among residents in Barillas is notably higher than average, Garrison says, and labeling healthcare access there “difficult” would be an understatement. Barillas is a 2-hour drive beyond the last paved road, and only a few residents own cars. People often walk to the nearest health clinic, miles away, only to receive less-than-adequate medical care.

Garrison and other volunteers installed clean cookstoves in every home. The smoke that had once filled residents’ lungs now fills a pipe that that channels it out through the roof. The hope is that the absence of new soot on their walls will come to mean an absence of smoke-related health risks.

Sustainability: Making Sure the System Sticks

cookstoves-featured.jpgImplementing clean cookstoves is more complicated than simply installing a more efficient stove, as Garrison knows. Local people need to take ownership of their stoves in order to invest in using them rather than selling them. In the past, “NGO’s would give them a rain barrel and two months later they would sell it,” he says of Barillas residents. This is why Rotary works with them to form a payment plan so that they become owners of their stoves.

Stoves must also be durable. Many new stove technologies are being developed, but if they require maintenance, they will not be a sustainable solution for people who cannot afford it. “In Kenya, stoves are $2.50 to buy and get installed, but if they have to do that again every 6 months, it’s prohibitively expensive,” Falk explains. Stove durability is one of the issues the Global Alliance is currently addressing, he says.

Different cultures require different types of stoves to meet their cooking needs. The people of Barillas eat tortillas as virtually their only form of sustenance, according to Garrison, but villagers in a town in Africa might require a surface better-suited to boiling vegetables. Introducing the right type of stove is essential to ensuring that the culture will adapt it into daily use.

Finally, new cookstoves cannot be successful unless they eliminate the specific particles causing health dangers. As Falk says, “We’ve seen stoves where smoke gets reduced but the level of particles does not.” Just because a stove doesn’t emit black smoke does not mean the cloud of danger has cleared. Falk and others at the CDC are testing new stove technologies for the Global Alliance to ensure that they reduce disease-related particle emissions before they are put into place.

Looking Forward

Armed with newer, more efficient stoves and the tools to make them economical and practical replacements to old, dangerous cooking methods, the Global Alliance hopes to reach and surpass its “100 by ’20” objective of implementing 100 million new cookstoves by the year 2020.

The goal is to avoid avoidable deaths by making the simple act of preparing food as safe as it is for the rest of the world. Ultimately, Falk says, “you should be able to prevent 100 percent of this.”