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Meningitis Link Brings New Urgency to Clean Cookstove Movement


When the Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants launched in 2012, it focused attention on the high levels of indoor air pollution caused by the widespread use of primitive cookstoves in undeveloped countries. The new coalition also helped to shine a spotlight on a largely invisible but critical piece of the global warming puzzle, and that is the "black carbon" pollutants from primitive cookstoves used by an estimated three billion people worldwide, a number that is bound to shoot up along with the pace of population growth.

Now researchers have added another element of urgency to the clean cookstoves movement, with studies showing a link between the use of primitive cookstoves and outbreaks of bacterial meningitis. However, in order to realize the full benefits of cleaner alternatives, researchers are also beginning to explore the intricate network of issues that surround the simple act of cooking.

Simple cookstoves, complex issues

At its most basic level, the clean cookstove issue is a straightforward matter of public health. As described in a new article by  Cheryl Dybas of the National Science Foundation (NSF), primitive cookstoves that are used indoors with little or no ventilation can expose a household to high levels of smoke from burning wood, charcoal, coal, animal dung or agricultural waste.

The result is premature death from heart and lung disease, especially among children, at an estimated rate of 4 million people per year. Pneumonia in children and low birthweight in infants have also been linked to cookstove smoke.

Despite their small size, cookstoves also encompass a wide, complex network of social, economic and environmental issues. Depending on the type of fuel used, and the effort or expense involved in obtaining it, primitive cookstoves can put enormous stress on local natural resources, especially when charcoal is involved. Fuel gathering can also constrain a household's ability to use time more productively, contributing to long-term economic malaise.

Some advocacy organizations have pointed out that fuel-gathering in remote areas also exposes women to a higher risk of sexual violence, though at least one researcher has cautioned against assuming that clean cookstoves could provide a universal solution.

New threat from cookstove smoke

According to Dybas, the latest twist in the cookstove story is a possible link to meningitis in Africa's "meningitis belt," which covers approximately 300 million people in The Gambia, Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Niger, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, Central African Republic, Sudan, South Sudan, Uganda, Kenya, Ethiopia and Eritrea.

Studies are showing that households exposed to smoke from cooking over open flames are nine times more likely to contract meningitis, a potentially deadly inflammation of the membrane around the brain and spinal cord.

Clean cookstoves in context

The clean cookstove movement provides a seemingly simple solution, but all too often it's the transition from point A to point B that proves complicated.

For example, dry-season dust in the meningitis belt could also be a significant factor, which would not be addressed by transitioning from one mode of cooking to another.

Depending on the type of clean cookstove, another factor is the willingness or ability of the household to keep the new equipment in good working condition and to use the proper fuel, as recently reported by National Geographic.

To examine cookstoves in a broader context, NSF has provided a grant for a first-of-its-kind study that expands the public health issue to include coordinated research by atmospheric, engineering, statistical and social scientists.

This quote from Sarah Ruth, a program director at NSF, sums it up:

"The adoption of more efficient cookstoves could lead to significant improvements in public health and environmental quality, but research has usually focused on the effects on individual households, local air quality, or the weather and climate system. By integrating the physical, social and health sciences, these scientists are providing a more complete analysis of the costs and benefits of improved cookstoves."

New alliances for clean cookstoves

In the meantime, the clean cookstove movement continues apace. The Climate and Clean Air Coalition to Reduce Short-Lived Climate Pollutants is a project of the U.S. with Bangladesh, Canada, Ghana, Mexico, Sweden, the U.S. and the UN Environment Programme.

The coalition, in turn, coordinates with other public-private programs already underway, most notably the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which aims to develop a market for clean cookstoves.

To underscore the level of corporate interest in this type of project, the Alliance was kickstarted by the Shell Foundation. Dow Corning and Morgan Stanley are among the other major private sector partners.

The transition to cleaner, locally produced cooking fuels could also have a ripple effect on sustainable economic development as well as public health, as envisioned by the clean cookstove project CleanStar Mozambique. This project also has some private sector heavyweights behind it, including Novozymes and Bank of America Merrill Lynch, as well as the Soros Economic Development Fund.

Another good example of the integrated approach is a new organization called Engineering for Change (E4C), which describes itself as a "growing community of engineers, technologists, social scientists, non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and local community advocates who are passionate about improving quality of life."

[Image: Primitive cookstove by Engineering for Change]

Follow me on Twitter: @TinaMCasey.

Tina Casey headshotTina Casey

Tina writes frequently for TriplePundit and other websites, with a focus on military, government and corporate sustainability, clean tech research and emerging energy technologies. She is a former Deputy Director of Public Affairs of the New York City Department of Environmental Protection, and author of books and articles on recycling and other conservation themes. She is currently Deputy Director of Public Information for the County of Union, New Jersey. Views expressed here are her own and do not necessarily reflect agency policy.

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