By Marc Gunther

About 3 billion of the world’s poorest people burn wood, charcoal or dung in smoky, open fires to cook their food and heat their homes. Millions die annually from lung and heart ailments caused by cooking with solid fuels, according to the World Health Organization.

With that in mind, Hillary Clinton, as secretary of state, launched a public-private partnership called the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves in 2010. By creating a global market for “clean and efficient household cooking solutions,” the alliance would “save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women and protect the environment.” Providing poor women with clean cookstoves, Clinton said at the annual gathering of the Clinton Global Initiative in New York, “could be as transformative as bed nets or even vaccines,” which have saved tens of millions of lives…

But “clean” is a nebulous term. Of those 28 million cookstoves, only 8.2 million — the ones that run on electricity or burn liquid fuels including liquefied petroleum gas (LPG), ethanol and biogas — meet the health guidelines for indoor emissions set by the WHO. The vast majority of the stoves burn wood, charcoal, animal dung or agricultural waste — and aren’t, therefore, nearly as healthy as promised. Although these cookstoves produce fewer emissions than open fires, burning biomass fuels in them still releases plenty of toxins. “As yet, no biomass stove in the world is clean enough to be truly health protective in household use,” says Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California at Berkeley and the leading health researcher on cookstoves.

That’s not the only problem with the stoves. Some perform well in the lab but not in the field. Others crack or break under constant heat. The best cookstove burning a clean fuel won’t protect poor families from disease if those who use them continue to cook over open fires as well — which many do. “They’re not the big solution, unfortunately, that we thought they were going to be,” says Rema Hanna, a Harvard economist who led “Up in Smoke,” the most extensive field study to date on this subject. Perhaps more research could apprehend what actually works, but for now it makes no sense to “push more stoves into the world that people aren’t going to use.”

The alliance agrees that more research is needed. It has commissioned more than 40 studies, including a handful of field trials designed to evaluate the health benefits of biomass stoves by looking at birth weights and incidence of respiratory disease. Preliminary results are encouraging, but nothing has been published yet. Meanwhile, recent evidence linking household air pollution to cardiovascular disease indicates that the health effects of such pollution are worse than previously thought. That led the WHO to increase its estimate of premature deaths caused by cooking over open fires from 1.9 million to 4.3 million several years ago. Household air pollution from solid-fuel combustion is now thought to be the world’s leading environmental cause of death and disability…

Continue reading at the Washington Post…

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Areas of Focus: Environment
Definition
Environment
Producing and using energy damages people’s health and the environment. EPIC research is quantifying the social costs of energy choices and uncovering policies that help protect health while facilitating growth.
Air Pollution
Definition
Air Pollution
Air pollution from fossil fuel combustion poses a grave threat to human health worldwide. EPIC research is using real-world data to calculate the effects of air pollution on human health...