For many decades, it was one of the globe’s most underappreciated health menaces: household pollution in developing countries, much of it smoke from cooking fires.
The dangerous smoke — from wood, dung or charcoal fires used by 3 billion people in villages and slums across Africa, Central America and Asia — was estimated by health officials to shorten millions of lives every year. The World Health Organization in 2004 labeled household pollution, “The Killer in the Kitchen.” Women and children nearest the hearth paid the greatest price.
If the health costs were not ominous enough, many environmental advocates worried that what was known as “biomass” cooking also had potentially grave consequences for the planet’s climate. Emissions from the fires were contributing to global warming, it was feared, and the harvesting of wood for cooking was helping to diminish forests, one of nature’s carbon-absorbing bulwarks against greenhouse gases.
In 2010, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves was formed to help mount a sustained effort at tackling the threats posed by household pollution. The alliance pledged to help engineer the distribution of 100 million cookstoves, small-scale appliances designed to cut fuel use and toxic emissions in impoverished households worldwide by 2020.
The United Nations Foundation was a founding partner in the effort. Hillary Clinton, then the U.S. Secretary of State, lent the support of the American government, promising money and the resources of a handful of agencies. “Millions of lives could be saved and improved,” Clinton said when the alliance’s formation was announced, adding that clean stoves could be as transformative as vaccines.
Eight years and $75 million later, however, the Alliance has fallen well short of its ambitious health and climate goals.
An array of studies, including some financed by the Alliance itself, have shown that the millions of biomass cookstoves of the kind sold or distributed in the effort do not perform well enough in the field to reduce users’ risk of deadly illnesses like heart disease and pneumonia.
The stoves also have not delivered much in the way of climate benefits. It turns out emissions from cooking fires were less of a warming threat than feared, and that — outside of some de-forestation hot spots — the harvesting of wood for cooking fires only modestly reduces the sustainability of forests.
The lack of impact on a warming planet, in turn, has undercut the Alliance’s plan to raise additional millions in investments from corporations eager to underwrite the cookstove movement as a way of compensating for their own emissions or polishing their records for environmental responsibility.
The Alliance’s top officials do not dispute that they have met with an array of disappointments. For one thing, they said, some of the countries and companies that pledged tens of millions of dollars early on failed to deliver, which they blamed on shifting priorities and agendas, not the Alliance’s struggles.
Kip Patrick, the Alliance’s senior director of global partnerships and communications, pointed to the effort’s benefits, saying the millions of biomass stoves distributed so far have cut the time women spend foraging for wood and costs to poor households of purchasing fuels such as charcoal.
Patrick added that the Alliance had acknowledged its disappointing initial results and adjusted its strategy for going forward.
The Alliance’s plans for the future come with something of an ironic twist: It will now make greater efforts to promote and distribute stoves that use propane, a fossil fuel, the same blue-flamed byproduct of gas drilling contained in cylinders under countless American backyard grills. (Outside of the U.S. propane is most commonly called liquefied petroleum gas, or lpg.) These stoves, it turns out, burn much more cleanly and efficiently than nearly all biomass stoves, reducing the harmful smoke given off during cooking while having a negligible impact on the climate.
In an interview last summer, Radha Muthiah, then the Alliance’s chief executive, said the Alliance was never against propane stoves, but should have been more direct about its openness to a fossil-fuel solution. “We really should have been launched as the Global Alliance for Clean Cooking,” she said. “You cannot talk about stoves without talking about fuels. It’s half the equation.”
Reid Detchon, the United Nations Foundation’s vice president for energy and climate strategy, said he, too, supports the push behind propane, though he acknowledged that, on the global scale, the foundation has a bias toward promoting renewable energy.
Kirk R. Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley, who has likely done more work on the health effects of cooking pollution in the developing world than anyone, said the Alliance’s setbacks reflected “a classic issue of identifying a problem and thinking you know the solution just because you know the problem.” Previous tries by outsiders to reinvent how the developing world cooks also yielded little, he acknowledged.
“Maybe there will be that magic stove eventually,” Smith said of the long push behind improved biomass stoves. “But after 60 years it’s beginning to look a little doubtful.”
Public health researchers have long had concerns about the dangers of open cooking fires. When fuel is burned inefficiently — particularly hunks of solid fuel, like wood or dried dung — it produces a dizzying and dangerous array of noxious gases and particles containing traces of dozens of toxic constituents.
The main worry is with the tiniest motes — known as PM 2.5, particulate matter smaller than 2.5 microns across. (An average human hair is 70 microns across.) These particles penetrate deeply into the lungs, and the smallest, as recent research shows, can cross into the bloodstream.
One of the earliest hints that rural cooking smoke was causing significant illness came in a 1959 paper written by the pioneering Indian cardiologist Sivaramakrishna Iyer Padmavati (who, at 101, is still practicing). Padmavati and her collaborators were weighing possible causes of cor pulmonale, a failure of the right side of the heart linked to lung problems. The majority of cases were not city residents, according to the study.
“In the rural and semirural areas, the houses were mostly 1- or 2-roomed mud huts in which several members of the family lived together,” the authors wrote, adding, “There was no outlet for smoke with the result that the house was filled with smoke when the family meal was cooked.”
A vast body of literature has accrued since, linking smoke from cooking on solid fuels to a host of diseases, with India’s toll alone estimated by some at from 1.1 million to 1.4 million premature deaths a year. It is a global loss of life that, by some estimates, is greater than that from all the air pollution from fossil fuels burned in power plants, factories and traffic jams.
This is an excerpt from a story originally published Thursday, July 12, by ProPublica. Read the full version here.