Chronic exposure to smoke

Chronic exposure to smoke from traditional cooking practices is one of the world’s biggest – but least well-known – killers. Penetrating deep into the lungs of its victims, the smoke causes a range of deadly chronic and acute health effects such as child pneumonia, lung cancer, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and heart disease, as well as low birth-weight in children born to mothers whose pregnancies are spent breathing smoke from open fires and traditional cookstoves.

The Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 estimates that exposure to smoke from the simple act of cooking is the fourth worst risk factor for disease in developing countries, and causes four million premature deaths per year – exceeding deaths attributable to malaria or tuberculosis. In addition, tens of millions more fall sick with illnesses that could readily be prevented with increased adoption of clean and efficient cooking solutions.

Exposure to smoke is greatest among women and young children, who spend the most time near open fires or traditional cookstoves tending to the family meal, or schoolchildren who may study by the light of an open flame. Both inhale unhealthy levels of emissions. Traditional cookstoves and open fires emit fine particles, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants at levels up to 100 times higher than the recommended limits set by WHO.

Health effects are especially deadly for children under the age of five. A randomized-control study in Guatemala led by the University of California, Berkeley, found that halving exposure to indoor air pollution with a chimney stove brought about a reduction in severe pneumonia, and that larger reductions in exposure had more pronounced effects. A systematic review of all available studies on the link between solid fuel use and child pneumonia has found an almost doubling of risk for those exposed.

Frequent exposure to cookstove smoke can also cause disabling health impacts like cataracts, which affect women more than men, and is the leading cause of blindness in developing countries.

Increased risk of injury

Women in developing countries are at risk of head and spinal injuries, pregnancy complications, and maternal mortality from the strenuous task of carrying heavy loads of firewood or other fuels.

Burns from open fires and unsafe cookstoves are another insidious risk faced by poor households dependent on kerosene, open fires, and unstable metal or clay cookstoves, contributing to a substantial percentage of the estimated 300,000 burn deaths that occur annually. Because burns require prompt and sophisticated medical intervention often lacking in remote areas of the world, such injuries often result in debilitating scarring and loss of movement in their victims.

Clean Cooking Solutions Improve Health

Clean cookstoves and fuels are evidence-based, cost-effective methods to prevent and control chronic and acute health effects such as child pneumonia, lung cancer, chronic obstructive lung disease, and heart disease at the global, regional, national, and local levels. For example, estimates in a recent Lancet article suggest that introducing 15million clean cookstoves in India every year for the next ten years could avoid more than 1.2 million deaths from chronic lung disease alone.

The use of cleaner, more efficient and safer cookstoves can also prevent major side effects of inefficient and polluting cooking, including blindness and burns.

Additional resources:

Cookstoves and Non-Communicable Diseases