Smoke – the killer in the kitchen

January 16th, 2013

How many people do you think die each year from household air pollution – basically, killer kitchen smoke?

Until recently we’ve been using figures from the World Health Organisation which varied between 1.3 million and 1.6 million people each year. A huge number – which meant that killer smoke was, for example, responsible for more deaths than malaria.

But new figures published in The Lancet say this figure is a dramatic underestimate and 4 million people die each year! We’ve been checking the figures out as, while we knew from talking to WHO that theirs was probably an underestimate, these new figures seem so massive!

I’ve just been sent an explanation of the new figure from Kirk Smith, Professor of Environmental Health at The University of California and a world expert on air pollution. And it seems that from his perspective they are pretty accurate!

Four million people die each year as a result of household air pollution.

But there are solutions.

Last week we organised a webinar to present Practical Action and Bosch Siemens experience of working together on smoke hoods in Nepal. The smoke hoods are fantastic, reducing household air pollution (HAP) by up to 81%. Moreover, within the communities where we have piloted the work is now sustainable with local people now making the smoke hoods and revolving loan funds. We’re now looking for more funds to role this incredibly important work out.

The webinar was mainly attended by experts and people working on household air pollution projects so I avoided asking questions and let the experts have the time. One thing I did want to know, so I asked Liz Bates (who works on the project) later, was what she meant when she said that when asked about the burden of collecting cooking fuel, the women surveyed in the villages said exhaustion, hunger and fear of slipping on rocks or down the ravine. It was the number of women saying hunger that I thought I understood but wasn’t sure. Liz replied:

“The women in Gatlang (Rasuwa) with whom we were working live very close to having insufficient food, and the loads that they carry are really heavy… I tried to lift one off the floor, and if you recall, I am neither petite nor weak… I could not even get it off the floor – which they found hilarious. I think the amount of energy that is expended in carrying these huge loads, often climbing, and for several hours means that ‘energy in’ is below ‘energy out’ and they are suffering from hunger – rather than just hungry – by the time they return. I was fairly shocked when I found this was one of the top issues.”

Somehow this touched me even more than the 4 million people who die each year – women living with hunger – you can feel for.

Practical Action is committed to working on smoke hoods, on clean energy access, on improved cook stoves etc. to reduce deaths and end hunger.

The most frustrating thing for me is that a smoke hood is basically a new type of chimney, we have great designs for clean cook stoves, modern energy access for all is achievable – it’s great but this isn’t rocket science. Yet somehow, because of technology injustice, the number of people relying on solid fuel as their main cooking fuel has remained roughly stable for the last decade. That’s more people cooking this way than at any previous time in history.

This is a problem with a simple solution – lets solve it!

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