JUDY WOODRUFF: Nearly half of the world’s population, three billion people, cook using stoves that burn wood or charcoal.
That seemingly harmless act is silently killing millions every year because of regular exposure to harmful smoke. An international alliance is on a mission now to reduce those deaths by distributing 100 million cleaner stoves around the world.
But some health experts doubt whether those new stoves can truly save lives.
As Hari Sreenivasan reports in a story produced with Global Health Frontiers, researchers in Ghana are trying to find the answer.
DR. KWAKU POKU ASANTE, Kintampo Health Research Center: Most of our communities and households in Ghana, and actually in Africa, are rural by nature, and therefore they depend on wood to cook their food, to heat their water.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Dr. Kwaku Poku Asante is the head of research at the Kintampo Health Research Center of the Ghana Health Service. He’s leading a study on the effects of wood smoke on the health of women and children in rural Ghana.
DR. KWAKU POKU ASANTE: The women who do commercial cooking with the traditional cookstoves, they get a very large amount of smoke coming out of the wood. And, sometimes, you see them with their kids on their back, and that is really a problem.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Household air pollution from the burning of biomass fuel, like wood and charcoal, is known to cause respiratory diseases, such as pneumonia, as well as chronic pulmonary and cardiovascular diseases.
DR. KWAKU POKU ASANTE: I’m really committed to this, because millions of people die from these illnesses, and we have to do something about it. We have to stop it.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Dr. Abena Yawson is a public health physician with the Kintampo Health Research Center.
DR. ABENA YAWSON, Kintampo Health Research Center: This is the pediatric ward for Kintampo Municipal Hospital. You can see it’s very busy.
This baby was admitted because of fever and cough. The mother noted she was breathing with difficulty, and we actually have diagnosed the child as having bronchial pneumonia. She’s using charcoal in a traditional cookstove to cook. And there are times that, when she’s cooking, and she’s fanning the fire, she coughs, because she gets to inhale smoke.
HARI SREENIVASAN: Pregnant women and their children face the most risk from these diseases, and the objective of this study in Kintampo is to look at the impact of household air pollution on low birth weight and pneumonia among about 1,400 pregnant women and their children in 35 communities in the study area.
Professor Darby Jack at Columbia University is a partner with the Ghanaians on the project, supported by the U.S. National Institutes of Health.
DARBY JACK, Columbia University: We recruit women during pregnancy, and we give them a clean-burning cookstove, either LPG, which is the propane or butane, the same thing you probably cook with in your backyard grill, or a stove called the BioLite, which is an efficient biomass burning stove, and can reduce emissions by about half.
HARI SREENIVASAN: The study measures exposure to carbon monoxide from the cookstoves and to small particles in the smoke, particulates that can penetrate deep into lungs and enter the bloodstream.
DARBY JACK: So, we deploy personal monitors that mothers can wear and the children can wear for 72 hours at a time.
HARI SREENIVASAN: At regular intervals, exposure monitors are collected and their data is downloaded.
DARBY JACK: We set out to test two hypotheses. The first is that reducing exposure to household air pollution will increase birth weight. And then the second hypothesis is that reduced exposure will reduce the rate of pneumonia in the first year of life.
The core questions here are, how clean is clean enough? And then, number two, what technologies will bring us there?
DR. KWAKU POKU ASANTE: We are not in a position to recommend any of the stoves that we have tested. That will be left with the policy-makers. Ours is to generate the evidence.
HARI SREENIVASAN: The evidence is still incomplete, but results so far are encouraging.
DR. ABENA YAWSON: I’m sure all the household actually might have gotten high exposure to smoke because of how close it is also to the building that they live in. And this is what the woman was using until the BioLite was given to her.
She actually enjoys cooking with the BioLite because she doesn’t get sore eyes after cooking, and the coughs that used to be very frequent with the traditional cookstove are also not there. So, the baby hasn’t been ill since birth.
He has very good reflexes. He’s pink. He’s not pale. So, he’s looking generally very beautiful and healthy.
DR. KWAKU POKU ASANTE: I would like to see, in the next decade, to see the burden of pneumonia come down and also to see people use improved cookstoves.
I would like to see a commitment from other partners, if we show the evidence that the use of improved cookstoves reduces the burden of many diseases.
HARI SREENIVASAN: And there’s another benefit to be expected from improved cookstoves. Women and young girls spend hours every day gathering wood for fuel. Released from that burden, they could spend more time going to school or caring for their children.
For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Hari Sreenivasan.