Cooking at home with the family should be a healthful experience.Yet nearly three billion people cook over open fires or crude stoves using biomass fuels like wood, dung, and crop residues that fill the home with harmful pollutants.The inefficient use of biomass fuels and the resultant indoor air pollution generates a major public health hazard among the global poor while perpetuating the cycle of poverty and accelerating climate change.The burden of inefficient energy use disproportionately affects women and children who spend more time by the fire and collecting fuel.
Biomass burned in open fires and rudimentary stoves releases hundreds of dangerous pollutants including particulate matter, carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and free radicals.
Particulate matter is composed of a complex mixture of organic and inorganic substances suspended in the air, which penetrate deep into the airways to cause poor gas exchange and vascular inflammation when sufficiently small.
Open cooking fires produce average 24-hour concentrations of respirable particulate matter up to 50 times higher than the EPA standards.
An estimated 80% of fine particulate matter inhaled globally occurs indoors in the developing world.
The World Health Organization estimates that indoor air pollution from biomass fuels causes 1.6 million deaths per year and 2.7% of the global burden of disease.
The leading global cause of death for children under five is pneumonia.Forty percent (or 800,000) of these deaths are attributed to the effects of indoor air pollution.
For adults the long-term inhalation of biomass smoke leads to chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) accounting for nearly 700,000 deaths per year. A lifelong cook using an open fire is like a lifetime smoker at high risk for COPD (i.e., emphysema and chronic bronchitis), which is projected to be the third largest cause of death for adults in 2030.
Further studies suggest that indoor air pollution from biomass fires contributes to low birth weight, perinatal mortality, tuberculosis, nasopharyngeal and lung cancer, cataracts, and cardiovascular disease.
Large epidemiologic studies in the US have shown that outdoor air pollution increases the risk for hospitalization and sudden cardiac death at far lower levels of exposure to fine particulate matter.
Open fires or crude stoves create the conditions for incomplete combustion, which lead to excessive emissions of carbon dioxide and other non-absorbable greenhouse gases that remain in the atmosphere for several decades and have the most significant impact on global warming in the long-term.
Incomplete woodfuel combustion also accelerates the release of black carbon – an aerosolized particle that traps heat by absorbing light but only lasts in the atmosphere for a week.The prompt and potent impact of black carbon creates an immediate warming effect that surpasses greenhouse gases in the near-term.For this reason, climate scientists recommend black carbon reductions as a quick fix to prevent the most severe projected consequences of global warming.
Inefficient fuel use places higher stress on depleted natural resources.About half the global wood harvest, for example, is used for fuel in the developing world.
Socioeconomics and gender
Inefficient fuel use perpetuates the cycle of poverty by increasing the amount of fuel needed to feed the family.
At the community level, higher demand for an increasingly scarce fuel resource either drives up purchasing costs or the labor required to find sufficient supply.
The workload for collecting fuel and the burden of exposure when it is burned both tend to fall on women and children.
An open fire or unventilated stove often requires more time tending to the fire and cooking, thereby restraining a woman’s productivity.
Cooking over an open fire is unpleasant for women, often leading to back pain, eye and throat irritation, burns, and poor personal hygiene.
Generally the kitchen is a less welcome place for social interaction with family and friends, although children are obligated stay near mom while she cooks and suffer from the same exposure.