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How a simple, clean cookstove could save millions of lives

Published: Thursday, April 3 2014 6:00 a.m. MDT

Two women prepare a meal using open fires in their home in India. Air pollution kills 7 million people a year, according to a new report from the World Health Organization, and more than half of those come from indoor cooking. A humble little appliance, a clean cookstove, may be the solution.

Ranyee Chiang, Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

Megan Maiolo-Heath was in the very small village of La Bendicion, Guatemala, the first time she gathered firewood to cook food.

Maiolo-Heath, the marketing manager for nonprofit Trees, Water & People, was 27 at the time, and remembers walking with Christina Juarez Bernube and her 8-year-old son for 30 minutes, using machetes to hack away at branches and dry logs, to find wood for their cooking fire.

When they were done, Bernube wrapped up the wood pile — about 50 pounds' worth — and balanced it on her head. They took it back home where a simple three-stone fire with a metal griddle served as her stove and blackened her walls with soot. In two days, Bernube explained, she would go looking for firewood again.

Nearly 3 billion people — mostly women and girls — still feed their families this way: over fires inside their homes. Not only is it time-consuming, but the air pollution that it creates can be surprisingly deadly. Air pollution kills 7 million people a year, making it the world's largest environmental health risk, according to a new report from the World Health Organization last week.

"Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cookstoves," Flavia Bustreo, WHO Assistant Director-General for family, women and children's health, said in a statement last week.

Yet, a simple technology — small indoor ovens known as clean cookstoves — is poised to reverse this trend. For only about $75 apiece, these stoves, usually made of inexpensive metal or brick and mortar, reduce indoor pollution by up to 70 percent. Now the clean cookstove has its own celebrity ambassador, Julia Roberts, and its own United Nations Foundation. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves plans to help 100 million homes adopt clean cook stoves by 2020.

The humble appliance — which generally looks no more fancy than a small pizza oven — may be the best bet for saving millions of mothers and children in the developing world.

Heating up

If clean cookstoves are poised to be one of the world's next great lifesavers, how come most people have never heard of them?

"They're not very sexy," says Maiolo-Heath, whose organization Trees, Water & People has provided more than 63,000 cookstoves to households, mostly in Central America in places like Guatemala and Nicaragua. It's easy for clean cookstoves to be overshadowed by slicker technologies for development like solar panels, she says, or feel-good projects like planting trees.

The cookstoves that her organization provides come in several models, from small, pot-bellied portable ones to popular built-in brick-and-mortar stoves that women like to decorate with tile and paint. All of them have a small chimney that spirits the smoke outside. They don't look exciting, she says, "and they have kind of a marketing problem" when it comes to exciting donors and the public.

Still, the impact they have can be critical. “Having an open fire in your kitchen is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour,” says Dr. Kirk Smith, a Professor of Global Environmental Health from the University of California at Berkeley, in the WHO report.

"You have to remember that people are exposed to this smoke every meal, every day," says Radha Muthiah, executive director for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which is housed by the United Nations Foundation. "What takes us an hour to cook takes three or four hours on a fire, times two or three meals a day. That means that half the day smoke is being emitted, and that's how it adds up," she says.

Save a tree, save a buck

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