May 28, 2015
Part I: Reducing Exposure to Indoor Air Pollution
This post is the fifth in our New Directions Blog Series which chronicles some of the exciting changes happening at Potential Energy. This series will take you on a journey with us as we explore new models, markets and technologies for improving the lives of women across the African continent. In our previous post, we wrote about the compressed biomass fuel we’re distributing along with the advanced biomass cookstoves. In this post, we’ll focus in on one of our main impact goals: reducing our members’ exposure to indoor air pollution.
Over 3 billion people cook over an open fire or rudimentary cookstove. While that figure might be surprising in itself, you may still wonder why open-fire cooking is a problem. For many of us in the developed world, an open fire has positive associations: whether rugged or romantic, it’s a rare occurrence that most of us enjoy. But can you also recall a time when the smoke from such a fire bothered you? Made you cough or stung your eyes? Now, can you imagine cooking 3 meals a day over that fire? That’s the equivalent of smoking 200 cigarettes – every single day! And while for many years experts from the health community have been educating us about the harmful effects of smoking, there’s still very little awareness surrounding the negative health impact of cooking over a smoky fire.
In developing countries, the dangerous burden of cooking almost exclusively falls on the shoulders of women. Often young girls assist their mothers, while infants are kept close, sometimes even wrapped up in a sling on their mothers’ backs. As a result, the simple daily activity of preparing food brings these people in contact with up to 20 times the level of smoke exposure deemed safe by the World Health Organization.
Numerous studies over the last couple of decades have established relationships between exposure to cooksmoke and pneumonia, tuberculosis, heart disease, low birth weight, and a number of other chronic respiratory illnesses. Respiratory infections were the top cause of death in low-income countries in 2011 and are predicted to be the top cause of death in Africa by 2015. In sub-Saharan Africa, where we work, smoke from cooking is responsible for 1⁄2 million deaths and 26 million disability-adjusted life years (DALYs) – lost years of “healthy” life. Globally, it causes more than 3 deaths per minute.
The prime cause of these ailments, illnesses and premature deaths is the particulate matter (PM), or soot, emitted by the incomplete combustion of wood, charcoal or other solid fuels. The tiniest of these particles can get lodged deep in the lungs, first impairing general lung function, then causing secondary diseases such as respiratory infections and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Because of their small size these particulates can also pass into the bloodstream, substantially increasing the risk of heart disease, stroke, and cancer.
So how can we solve this problem? We must completely eliminate smoke in the kitchen – and that is exactly what we’re aiming to do with our advanced biomass cookstove programs in Burkina Faso and Uganda.
As we’ve described previously, these advanced stoves introduce a forced draft created by a small fan in the base, which gasifies the fuel in the stove chamber, facilitating efficiency levels of 95%+ compared to open fires. This increase in efficiency makes all the difference. The visible change is astounding: instead of a smoke-filled kitchen, our program members in Uganda and Burkina Faso now cook in virtually smoke-free environments. Rather than being a dangerous, often unpleasant experience, cooking can be quick, safe, clean and even enjoyable.
To sum up, by increasing access to cutting-edge clean cookstoves and fuel, we’re saving lives, money, and time, helping the communities and people we work with achieve their full potential.
We hope that you enjoyed learning more about why indoor air pollution is an urgent problem that needs addressing. If you’re interested in reading more, we highly recommend this brief WHO report (PDF). How can you help? Increase awareness by sharing this blog post with friends and family. Link to us on social media. And if you want to do more, you can donate to bring an improved stove ($20) or advanced stove ($100) into the home of a family in need in Darfur, Uganda or Burkina Faso.
Next up, we’ll examine the environmental impact of traditional cooking practices and discuss the benefits of replacing open fires and rudimentary cookstoves with advanced biomass cookstoves.