Skip to main content.

Too Hot to Handle

Too Hot to Handle

Picture of Linda Marsa

Cook Stoves Save Lives: Why Hillary Clinton's new indoor stove initiative will help stop global warming

Last week, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton pledged $50 million in seed money to supply fuel efficient indoor stoves for women in Africa. When you think of the mega-billions that are spent on endless wars, it's refreshing to see that what the DOD would consider chump change is being earmarked for a worthy project that will save tens of millions of lives, improve the health of millions more-and drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

It's a little reported issue that is finally bubbling to the surface: every day, millions of women in developing countries spend hours sitting in poorly ventilated rooms, often with no chimneys, using charcoal or wood to fuel small fires that cook food. Breathing that polluted air day in and day out destroys lungs, and leads to heart and respiratory diseases, which causes more than 2 million premature deaths a year, mainly among women and children, according to U.N. estimates. Installing a low cost stove in millions of homes in India, Africa and Latin America can not only save more lives than far costlier vaccination campaigns but can help stop global warming by cutting the billions of tons of carbon that are released into the environment from these cooking fires.

But what's hasn't gotten much attention is that this initiative is the direct result of a painstaking and immaculately designed study conducted in a remote village in Guatemala by a research team led by Kirk Smith, a professor of global environmental health at UC Berkeley and one of the world's leading experts on the health effects of indoor pollution.

This past June, I interviewed Smith in his cluttered office in a high rise on the edge of the UC Berkeley campus in the course of doing research for a book I'm writing on the effects global warming will have in our health. The school year was over and the campus was deserted but the 63-year-old scientist's office was a beehive of activity, with his desk piled high with grant applications and papers, graduate students crowded outside his door clamoring for his attention and a crammed schedule of faculty meetings. Perched on a windowsill was a gleaming steel prototype stove a little larger than a can of paint which a major company had made for Smith to demonstrate they could be mass produced for $50 a piece.

Despite his time constraints, he sat down with me for an hour to talk about how this fetid air impacts the health of impoverished people around the world, and how a simple and bargain basement fix can pay-off in multiple ways. After more than seventeen years of applying for grants, the NIH finally gave him half a million dollars in 2001. Eight years ago, Smith, along with a group of students, researchers and Guatemalan health experts, began spending a week out of every month in San Lorenzo, a tiny village in the western highlands of Guatemala nearly nine thousand feet above sea level.

There, the researchers tracked more than five hundred local families. Half were given plancha stoves with chimneys, while the other half continued to cook over open fires. Electronic sensors and transmitters were attached to the walls and the villager's clothes to track the amount of carbon monoxide they were exposed to every day. Every week, families would get a medical checkup and the information from the sensors was downloaded.

The results were astonishing: they were able to prove, for the first time, that the risk of disease directly increased with exposure, resulting in far higher rates of pneumonia and adverse birth outcomes in children, and cataracts, tuberculosis, heart disease and chronic lung disease in women. In fact, his data showed that children who inhaled the least smoke were up to eight-five percent less likely to contract severe pneumonia than those who inhaled the most. Since half the world's population cooks this way, the health impacts of this exposure, he told me, are larger than any other environmental risk except contaminated water supplies.

Yet despite the magnitude of the problem and his persuasive data, Smith spent many fruitless years trying to get major foundations, which are deluged by funding requests from equally worthy projects, interested in sponsoring a stove buying initiative. "It was very frustrating," he sighs. That is, until now-and you certainly couldn't have a better advocate than Hillary Clinton, who hopefully will start a new trend.


Picture of Rebecca Plevin

Wow - that's a great story. It is amazing to think that a fuel-efficient stove could provide so many benefits to communities - and to the globe!

Picture of Angilee Shah

You might be interested in a report a few months about by Deborah Schoch about the hazards of wood burning in Chico:


Follow Us



CHJ Icon