Cooking Shouldnât Kill
About the Authors: Kris Balderston serves as Special Representative for the Secretary of State's Global Partnerships Initiative, and Jacob Moss serves as U.S. Coordinator for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
On Wednesday, the world's leading general medical journal The Lancet released a major new report which estimates that household air pollution attributed to cooking over open fires or basic cookstoves causes the premature deaths of approximately four million people annually — many of them women and young children. This number — which includes 3.5 million deaths associated with indoor exposures and another 500,000 deaths from cookstoves' contribution to outdoor air pollution — is more than double previous estimates and underscores the need to renew efforts to prevent these deaths.
Three billion people globally rely on solid fuels like wood, charcoal, agricultural waste, animal dung, and coal for household energy needs, often burning them inside their homes in inefficient and poorly ventilated stoves or open fires. Polluting stoves and fuels used indoors expose women and their families to air pollution levels as much as 50 times greater than World Health Organization guidelines for clean air. Household air pollution exposure can cause heart and lung diseases in adults, pneumonia in children, and low birth weight among infants.
Women and children are affected most as they are exposed to high levels of pollution inside the home and often spend several hours every day collecting fuel — time that could be much better spent on schooling or income generating activities such as farming or starting a microenterprise. Even households that purchase (rather than collect) solid fuels can save money by switching to cleaner stoves that are also more fuel-efficient.
The new estimate of the premature deaths due to household air pollution represents a significant increase from previous estimates of two million annual premature deaths. The study in The Lancet cited household air pollution as the fourth worst health risk factor globally, second worst among women and girls, and fifth worst among men and boys. It is the worst of the environmental risk factors affecting health (such as outdoor air pollution and unimproved water sources and sanitation), both globally and in poor regions. It is also the single worst health risk factor in South Asia and second worst in most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.