On Thanksgiving, we cooked and, if we did it right, we gave sincere thanks for being alive. But we rarely think of how the two really interact. We don’t recognize that in many parts of the world, cooking provides not just nourishment and pleasure but sometimes harm and death. Thankfully, there’s a solution on the way.
The consequences of cooking may be the least-known major health problem in the world. According to the World Health Organization, almost 2 million people a year — mostly women and children — die from diseases (pneumonia, cancer, pulmonary and heart ailments) that are connected to smoke from dirty stoves and open fires. Toxic fumes from cooking in poorly ventilated dwellings kill more people than AIDS and tuberculosis, and twice as many as malaria.
More than 3 billion people worldwide live in homes where food is cooked with wood, dung, makeshift charcoal or agricultural waste as fuel. That means that almost half the world’s population is vulnerable to severe health problems from the smoke that such fuels produce.
To get a sense of the level of indoor air pollution that is routine in many parts of the world, consider that the Obama administration recently faced a controversy over whether 65 parts per billion of pollutants or 75 ppb are safe to breathe. The fumes from open fires or old stoves, inhaled directly in closed spaces, by some estimates contain 200 times that amount.
Other severe environmental and social problems flow from the absence of modern stoves. A substantial amount of deforestation has been linked to the combined effect of cutting down trees for fuel and releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through burning. Old approaches to cooking are simply unsustainable. Experts in East Africa estimate that in 25 years, supplies of firewood will run out altogether.
In the meantime, women in the developing world spend 20 hours a week, on average, searching for wood and other fuel for cooking. This is time that could obviously be better spent helping in the fields, educating children and building small businesses. If they live in war zones, these women and girls face the threat of assault or rape when they leave home searching for fuel and other necessities.
I recently visited a tiny mountain village in China’s Shaanxi province where poor villagers live with certain modern conveniences such as television and bare light bulbs but still cook much like their ancestors did. Many will die young. And many looked almost twice their actual age.
The good news is that the world is finally mobilizing. Last year, I watched Secretary of State Hillary Clinton appear before the Clinton Global Initiative and announce a new public-private Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, with the aim of distributing 100 million of the new appliances by 2020.
Unlike open fires and old stoves, the new cookstoves — run on electricity or gas, depending on the model — recirculate smoke through filters to reduce pollution. They can now be manufactured at a relatively low cost, sometimes as low as $15. Experience shows that when villagers are charged at least some small fraction of that — instead of getting the stoves free — they make better use of them because they feel more ownership.
In 20 years covering Clinton, I never saw her so passionate. “This could be as transformative as bed nets or even vaccines,” she said, her voice rising with enthusiasm. “We are excited because we think this is actually a problem we can solve.”
The last year has brought major progress toward the goal. More than 20 nations have joined the alliance, and several corporations have kicked in (Dow Corning Corp. is contributing $5 million). The U.S. commitment to the fund, which is supervised by the United Nations Foundation, has already exceeded $100 million.
When Clinton brought up cookstoves with Chinese officials last spring, one replied, “My sister has lung cancer, and we grew up in a house with traditional cookstoves.” He promised that China would focus more on the problem. At a time when tensions are rising between the U.S. and China over navigation in the South China Sea and currency manipulation, it helps to develop areas of common humanitarian interest.
In the U.S., officials from the National Institutes of Health and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, among other agencies, are placing new emphasis on the issue. Recently, one technologist designed a new fan for old cookstoves that reduces pollution sharply without replacing the old units.
“People I’ve spoken to in various countries say, ‘Thank God America is thinking about this stuff, taking the lead,’” said Kris Balderston, the special representative for global partnerships at the State Department.
When the Pilgrims hosted their first Thanksgiving, they were celebrating more than their ability to find food on a strange new continent. They were celebrating the pluck and ingenuity at solving problems that helped them survive.
As we pull our overstuffed turkeys out of our fancy ovens, let’s spare a moment for a more humble cooking appliance that can help make a better, healthier world.