Albion Monitor /News

Cooking Smoke Serious Global Health Risk

by Tony Fitzpatrick

Less than half of poverty-stricken dwellings in northeastern Brazil and central Mexico were safe to live and breathe in

ST. LOUIS --An engineer at Washington University in St. Louis is investigating a twist to an old saying: Where there's fire there's smoke.

Gene Shultz, Ph.D., professor emeritus of technology and human affairs in the School of Engineering and Applied Science, has observed directly that where there is smoke in Third World houses there is a high incidence of illness and even death among women and children, especially girls, confined to the household.

Applying the same technology researchers use to analyze rates and composition of second-hand tobacco smoke in affluent countries, Shultz and his colleagues have tested dozens of poverty-stricken dwellings in northeastern Brazil and central Mexico and found that less than 20 percent of the 41 homes studied were safe to live and breathe in. Only six out of 20 homes in Brazil had acceptable levels of respirable suspended particulates, including black carbon and fine particles; in Mexico, only one of 21 dwellings had acceptable levels.

Wood smoke contains many different chemical products such as black carbon and other fine particles that are greenhouse gases. All are bad for human health. In addition, carcinogens, carbon monoxide, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons and other dangerous organic particles are constituents of wood smoke. These and other compounds also can be found in the smoke of non-woody fuels, such as corn cobs and stalks, plant leaves and livestock dung. Shultz and his colleagues analyzed smoke from these fuels as well.

Poor people in the Third World are forced to use such fuels for cooking because of deforestation from development, population pressure, expansion of agriculture and land degradation. Even when wood fuel is available, kitchens typically are choked with smoke from faulty chimneys and stoves, Shultz says. The health problems that arise from these environments range from eye diseases such as cataracts, to respiratory diseases like pneumonia, bronchitis and asthma.

To analyze the household environments, Shultz outfitted the cooks, all women, with Flow-Lite Pro pumps attached to their waists; an air-inlet hose near the woman's face took in the air, and particulates in the environment were captured on filters. The filters were analyzed at the air pollution laboratory of the Institute of Physics, University of Sao Paulo.

"In one of the villages we visited in Brazil, every woman had cataracts, and only one of the men did"

The study is the first to use second-hand smoke equipment for analysis of kitchen smoke in the Third World. Shultz and colleagues in the United States, Mexico and Brazil performed the study to document the need for alternative cooking fuels in poor countries, particularly dryland regions where fire wood has become scarce and difficult to raise as an energy crop.

"In affluent countries, second-hand smoke is an unfortunate byproduct of luxury, but in poor countries it is the result of necessity -- cooking," says Shultz, a biomass expert who has analyzed the energy value of many different plants.

"Conditions in the Third World where traditional fuels are burned are far worse than the published literature indicates. The problem arises from culture, inadequate stoves and ventilation, and the use of woody fuels that create a hazardous environment. Complicating the problem is frequent unawareness of the dangers caused by breathing smoke. The continuation of these conditions will mean more hardship and illness for the poor and more deforestation of the land."

Shultz has found a growing resentment among the women exposed to this environment. "In one of the villages we visited in Brazil, every woman had cataracts, and only one of the men did," says Shultz. "Talking to the women, we could feel the quiet anger at their husbands, who work all day and stay out of the house. But we also observed the other end of the spectrum. Several of the women told us, in effect, 'No big deal. We're Brazilian. That's the way we do things.' It was an almost macho attitude, and it's unfortunate because these problems can be addressed with the right education and attitude."

Nearly half the world's population -- more than two billion people -- prepares meals with wood or wood-replacement fuels on primitive stoves

Shultz said that nearly half the world's population -- more than two billion people -- prepares meals with wood or wood-replacement fuels on primitive stoves that are often three-stone fireplaces without chimneys. Compounding the problem of smoky fuels are indoor kitchens with poor or no ventilation, or chimneys that extend horizontally from the wall, creating next to no draft.

"We saw several instances where soup cans were used for chimneys," Shultz relates. "Many of these had large burnt-out holes. We'd ask how long that particular chimney had been in place, and often we'd find that they had had them for several months. Simple maintenance takes care of this component of the problem, but the other aspects -- attitudinal and economic -- are a bit more difficult."

Hardwood fuel that is less smoky is very difficult to find in Shultz' study sites because of the loss of such desirable woods and the inability of the poor to afford it. The majority of the families studied in Brazil and Mexico are indifferent to such elementary practices as avoiding face contact with smoke while cooking, minimizing time spent around the fireplace, and even stirring a pot at arm's length.

In 1992, the World Health Organization identified indoor air pollution from smoke as one of the world's chief health problems. Worldwide, more children die from respiratory infections than from diarrhea, which had been the chief health problem of infants. Smoke from wood, other biomass fuels and coal has been linked in numerous studies to acute respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and chronic bronchitis, especially among women and children. Reproductive problems, including low birthweight, stillbirths and spontaneous abortions, also have been related to high levels of carbon monoxide in the blood from smoky fires.

Shultz says the common political answer to the problem is to plant a communal grove of hardwoods outside the village.

"This often gets discussed before an election, and sometimes it is implemented, but it's very problematic," he says. "First of all, in dryland areas you often need to import water to get the seedlings started; it takes a good seven years to harvest the trees; and in almost every case, the trees are poached. Even if this were successful, the very best hardwoods still produce smoke, and many of the poor cannot afford to replace their indoor three-stone fireplaces with stoves, or they don't know how to do so."

Solution may be smokeless dried roots

Shultz believes he has the answer to the problem -- a nearly smokeless, non-woody fuel he discovered in 1985. He calls it "rootfuel." Its use could lessen deforestation and improve the health of women and children in Third World dryland regions where relatives of the southwestern U.S. species Cucurbita foetidissima, a melon plant, grow wild. Shultz discovered, by accident, that the starchy, sun-dried roots of this plant burned cleaner and more efficiently than wood for cooking fuels.

Since his discovery, Shultz and his collaborators proved that rootfuel is produced more rapidly and in much smaller space than wood fuel. Since 1989, rootfuel has been successfully tested and initiated in six countries on three continents, including on a Navajo Indian Reservation in New Mexico.

At one site in Mexico, a family is growing a plot of rootfuel on deforested land and enjoying the benefits of the smokeless fuel.

While Shultz admits that the concept of finding cooking fuel beneath the soil rather than atop it takes some getting used to, he says that in places where he has demonstrated rootfuel, women have seen its effectiveness and cleaner results. Spreading the concept will be dependent on the word of women, who bear the brunt of hazardous kitchen environments.

"The most annoying thing to deal with is the attitude of the public toward the poor," Shultz says. "In one country, I've even heard a biblical passage, 'The poor ye have with ye always,' as a defense to ignore the social problem. Well, if people don't have ethical concerns, they should have pragmatic ones. Lots of these people end up in public hospitals at taxpayers' expense. Implementing rootfuel where it is feasible in these desperate situations could help many people across the sociological spectrum."

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Albion Monitor Januray 7, 1997 (

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