Cooking Over Open Fires Bring Deadly Consequences

In Guatemala, locally made cookstoves are helping combat toxic smoke—but economics and tradition keep many people from using them.

Some three billion people around the world cook their food and heat their homes with open or barely contained fires, and while the smoke dissipates quickly, its accumulated costs are steep. The typical cooking fire produces about 400 cigarettes’ worth of smoke an hour, and prolonged exposure is associated with respiratory infections, eye damage, heart and lung disease, and lung cancer. In the developing world, health problems from smoke inhalation are a significant cause of death in both children under five and women. To fuel the smoky fires, families can spend 20 hours a week or more gathering wood, time that might otherwise be spent at school, at work, or simply at rest.

Wood-burning household fires and inefficient stoves cause broader suffering, too. The firewood trade promotes deforestation and also provides cover for timber smuggling, since wood from rare trees can be hidden among logs from more common species. The smoke from cook fires pollutes the air outdoors as well as indoors, especially in cities. And as a major source of black carbon —the world’s billions of household fires are also thought to be accelerating the effects of climate change, speeding the disruption of monsoon cycles and melting of glaciers.

New cookstoves aren’t always adopted so easily. For a stove to be fully accepted by a household, both stove and fuel must be affordable, accessible, and easy to use—goals that aren’t easy to achieve. And in places where the social status of women is still tightly tied to the quality of their cooking, woe to the stove whose output doesn’t measure up to local culinary standards.

The long-term benefits of a cleaner-burning wood stove are uncertain. Stoves that burn cleanly and efficiently in the laboratory, under standardized conditions, may not sustain their performance over years of everyday use. while the new stoves did improve household air quality and reduce the frequency of childhood illnesses such as pneumonia, the indoor air pollution was still far above guidelines.