<i>By Simon Collings, GVEP International Blog</i>

Last Friday I went to a talk by Prof. Kirk Smith, one of the world’s leading experts on the health risks from household air pollution. Kirk is based at the University of California, Berkley and has spent 30 years working on issues relating to the inhallation of harmful gasses and particulates from open fires and inefficient cooking appliances.

As the body of evidence grows it is becoming increasingly clear that the health impacts of unsafe cooking are huge. Even with smoke hoods and chimneys pollutants linger in the outside air where they continue to pose a threat to health. The only safe way to cook with wood or charcoal is where combustion of the fuel is close to 100%. This is hard to achieve and the stoves which can meet these standards are expensive. The type and condition of the fuel and how the stove is used also impact on efficiency.

‘Improved stoves’ may save on fuel but most stoves have limited impacts on reducing risks to health. The goal has to be to move away from using biomass. In the richer parts of the world people have moved to gas and electricity. People in the less well of parts of the globe also want to migrate to clean and easy to use cooking appliances and fuels.The problem is how to achieve this.

Alternatives to biomass are usually not available to poorer households in less developed countries. Where they are available they are expensive. Being aware of the scale of the health risk is a good starting point. But it doesn’t mean we know how to solve the problem. As Kirk pointed out last Friday John Snow proved the connection between poor sanitation and cholera in London in 1854. Today a third of the world’s population still doesn’t have safe drinking water.

There are things we can be doing. Expanding use of LPG, even it this largely benefits, middle class households, will help. Using solar water heaters rather than wood fires to heat water and encouraging use of more efficient cooking utensils to reduce the time spent cooking might also be beneficial.

Of course efficient stoves also help on some health dimensions – but they are only a step towards a solution. Kirk suggested giving highly efficient stoves to pregnant women as part of state funded ante-natal programmes might be a way forward. There are major societal benefits to be gained from reducing air pollution. Relying purely on commercial stove sales to deliver these isn’t a credible strategy.