ReThink Burns: How to Prevent Cooking from Killing
Many of us will not think twice about going into our kitchens and turning a few knobs to prepare our meal on a large electric range and stove. But for half of the world, the simple act of preparing food involves taking considerable risk of injury or even death.
The organization I lead has been providing reconstructive surgery for people living in poverty since 1969. In those years, we have seen far too many people come to us with debilitating burn injuries sustained while cooking food on open fires—too many children who can no longer walk or hold a pencil because they were severely burned by a cooking fire or a malfunctioning cookstove.
Children like Punkaj in India. Punkaj was a normal 10-year-old boy who liked tea. One day as he went to prepare his cup of tea, the crude stove he was using to heat the water suddenly exploded right in front of him, severely burning his chest, neck and arms. Without access to proper care for severe burns like these, Punkaj’s injury was left to “heal” by itself.
Consequentially, his skin shrank up to close the wounds, creating what are known as burn scar contractures. Punkaj developed these contractures over his neck and arms, rendering him unable to lift his arms or turn his head. The webbed skin that formed between his chin and chest made him look frightening to other children. He also was unable to attend school, since he needed to ride a bicycle to get to there and the contractures made it impossible for him to lift his arms high enough to reach the handlebars.
Punkaj’s case is not an isolated one. Around 70 percent of burn injuries that we treat around the world are caused by open fires or stoves used for cooking. And every three seconds, someone in a developing country is severely burned—more than 10 million people each year.
In India, burns are the third leading cause of death for teenagers ages 15-19. Overall, an estimated 140,000 people in India die from burns each year. Among those who survive, the number who will be left with debilitating burn scar contractures like Punkaj’s that can lead to lifelong disability is 280,000 a year.
We were able to provide surgery for Punkaj that has released his disabling burn scar contractures and allowed him to return to school, but the scope of the problem remains staggering. More needs to be done to ensure that terrible burns like these don’t happen in the first place.
One group working on this issue is the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, of which our organization is a partner. The Alliance promotes the adoption of cookstove technologies, fuels, equipment and practices that address the health and environmental risks inherent in cooking with fire. It is working to promote internationally recognized standards and testing protocols to measure how safe a given cookstove is—as well as how clean and efficient it is. Last year, the Alliance helped produce an international document defining criteria to rate cookstoves on four performance indicators, including one for safety.
This represents a significant first step toward preventing disabling burn injuries like the ones Punkaj and many others have sustained, and we must keep this momentum going.
We must continue to invest in research and development for safer cooking technologies, support the manufacturing of better stoves and ensure that the most vulnerable have access to these technologies. And until we are able to prevent these burn injuries from occurring, we must also ensure that people like Punkaj have access to medical care to properly treat their wounds.
Cooking should not kill, maim or disable. There is much to be done, but we have the tools to ensure that cooking can be safer for all.
Susan W. Hayes is president and CEO of ReSurge International (formerly Interplast), a Sunnyvale-based international nonprofit that has provided more than 100,000 free reconstructive surgeries and built medical capacity in developing countries since its founding at Stanford University in 1969.