Cooking Comes Clean

By Calum Macpherson, Dean of the School of Graduate Studies and Director of Research at St. George's University
March 8, 2017

Picture this: a woman and her child are at home, working together to make dinner for their family. They use a traditional, indoor stove and burn wood to get a fire going. As the fire grows, dark smoke fills the room. Black soot covers the walls of their house. The mother and child start to cough as the toxic fumes fill their lungs. But they push through — or risk going without a cooked meal for the night.

For many of us, this might sound like a story straight out of the 1800s. But for nearly half the global population, this is a part of everyday life.

Around three billion people around the world rely on “solid fuels” like wood, dung, and coal as their main source of household energy. Burning these fuels generates large clouds of smoke and pollutes their homes. As a result, women and children in these households inhale the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes a day.[1]

The consequences can be fatal. Nearly four million people every year die prematurely from illnesses related to household pollution.[2] Exposure to these fumes doubles the risk for children to contract childhood pneumonia, one of the leading causes of death for children under five.[3] [4]

One of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) long-term goals is to shift entire communities from cooking with solid fuels to more efficient, modern fuels. But with several practical limitations in the way — including the lack of access to such fuels in rural areas — innovators are designing immediate solutions that mitigate the negative effects of cooking with these fuels.[5]

The Biogas Support Program is one such innovative endeavor. This household energy program provides free, clean cooking fuel for families through a cook stove that converts cattle and human waste into methane.[6] Since its launch in 1992, the Biogas Support Program has installed around 250,000 biogas plants in Nepal and provided a safe and sustainable energy source across the country.

Dr. Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the University of the California, San Diego is another innovator taking up the challenge.

Dr. Ramanathan’s initiative Project Surya — or “sun” in Sanskrit — developed and piloted affordable “forced-draft” stoves in over 4,000 households in rural India between 2014-2016.[7] These $70 stoves still burn cheap biomass, but use less than half of the biomass fuel that traditional stoves required.[8]

Such breakthroughs can’t come fast enough. For the billions of people who risk their health simply by heating their homes or preparing a meal, every second counts.

[1] http://www.who.int/indoorair/publications/fuelforlife.pdf, page 8

[2] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs292/en/

[3] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs292/en/

[4] http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs178/en/

[5] http://www.who.int/indoorair/publications/fuelforlife.pdf, page 28

[6] http://www.who.int/indoorair/publications/fuelforlife.pdf, page 18

[7] http://mashable.com/2016/11/05/clean-cookstoves-wireless-data-study/#znTSE1XunSqr

[8] http://www.unicnairobi.org/newsletter/UNNewsletter_May2012.pdf

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