When Cooking Can Harm: Cookstove Research and Human Health

By Dina Abdulhadi

Two researchers examine a clean-burning cookstove design in a lab.

EPA cookstove research

While I don’t Instagram every meal, cooking is still an important part of my life. It’s a social anchor that ties me to my family and friends. I also see the act of cooking as a major part of being healthy, since it allows me to control what goes into my food.

So when I learned that the process of cooking is one of the greatest health threats that people face globally, I felt disoriented. Cooking is an everyday task that most in the U.S. can accomplish by turning a dial on a stove. Yet three billion people throughout the world use biomass or coal-fed cookstoves to cook their meals and heat their homes, and the smoke from these fires often causes respiratory and heart disease. In fact, household air pollution is the fourth highest risk factor for disease worldwide for all genders and the second highest risk factor for women[1]. Cookstove emissions also contribute to climate change.

Recently, I attended a scientific meeting to learn about cookstove studies by researchers who received one of six grants from EPA to research cleaner technologies and fuels for cooking, lighting and heating in homes that have limited or no access to electricity or gas lines. This research into cleaner cooking options will help improve air quality and protect the health of people throughout the world, including native peoples in Alaska and others in rural areas of the U.S. who use cookstoves to make their meals.

A presentation by Dr. Tami Bond, one of the grantees and a professor at the University of Illinois, particularly stood out for me. Bond studies the climate and air quality effects of fuel combustion. She receives assistance from trained citizen scientists in the communities who help collect and assess emissions from cookstoves in their homes.

The research by Bond and other grant recipients has given me an appreciation for how science can help to provide solutions to environmental health risks, including those from simply cooking a family meal. I plan to learn more by visiting the cookstove research lab in Research Triangle Park, N.C. There, researchers are testing a wide variety of cookstoves from all over the world to measure their energy efficiency and how much they pollute. You too can get an inside look at the research by watching this recent video by Voice of America on EPA’s cookstove testing.

Interested in seeing other research presented at the meeting? Click here for a list of presentations.

About the Author: Dina Abdulhadi is a student contractor working with the science communication team in EPA’s Office of Research and Development.

[1] A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

A New Frontier for Air Sensors 2014

By Dustin Renwick

palm-sized air quality sensor

Compact air quality sensor fits in the palm of your hand.

The wearable market has expanded its product line—from smart glasses and smart watches to dozens of different fitness tracker wristbands and T-shirts that interact with the world around you.

What you don’t see in these gadgets is the tiny technologies that make it possible for your T-shirt to light up or for you to tap your wrist and see how many calories you’ve burned.

Similar to how computers shrunk from the size of rooms to the size of your front pocket, sensors have also been developed in ever decreasing dimensions.

One of the major applications for EPA: sensors that measure air quality. Agency researchers and others can use these portable, real-time sensors in the environment to gain a more intricate picture of what’s happening in our communities.

We’ve hosted a competition won by a design for a wearable sensor that estimates a person’s exposure to air pollution. EPA grants fund broad cookstove research, some of which includes the use of air sensors to measure pollution from indoor cookstoves.

Last fall, EPA collaborators published a seminal paper on the sensor revolution in a top journal, Environmental Science & Technology. The journal received more than 5,400 submissions in 2013 on a variety of topics, and EPA’s research won first runner-up for best feature paper.

One of the most important parts of this field of study is the diversity of people interested in the work.

Next week, we’ll hold an air sensors workshop to spark more discussions and continue this important work advancing innovative air sensor technologies by bringing together scientists, policy experts, technology developers, data analysts, and leaders from government, industry, and community groups.

To learn more about the opportunities and challenges that air sensors present, register for the webcast of our workshop on June 9-10.

We’ll live tweet the event from @EPAresearch using #AirSensors.

About the author: Dustin Renwick works as part of the innovation team in the EPA Office of Research and Development.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Improved Cookstoves in Peru: A Peace Corps Volunteer’s Story

By Greg “Goyo” Plimpton, PCVC WASH, Peru 18

For the more than 3 billion people around the world, who still cook and heat with open fires inside the home, the improved cookstove is a development technology that reduces the health hazards associated with breathing smoke. In rural Peru, I used funding from the USAID/Peace Corps Small Project Assistance Agreement to introduce my community to this brilliant technology by building 15 stoves and training other Peace Corps Volunteers (PCVs), NGOs, and local masons in the stove construction, use, and maintenance techniques.

A successful and sustainable project requires good cooperation between the PCV and the community partners. My first challenge was finding a household that was willing to test a stove, with only my explanation and a diagram. Felicia, who became a tireless advocate and “salesperson” in the community, took that leap of faith and patiently worked with me as we sorted out the details on the construction and use together.

One of the truly unique and powerful aspects of the Peace Corps service is that we Volunteers live for two years in close proximity to those we serve. This gives us the advantage of trust, familiarity and, most of all, time. This gave me the opportunity to revisit all of the families, multiple times. The feedback from my community was instrumental in showing me that the improved cookstoves required the user to make many behavioral changes. I also observed many benefits and challenges with the clean cookstoves.

The improved cookstoves not only required more work to start a fire, but they needed smaller sized wood. The stoves only allowed for a limited amount of pots, of a specific size, to fit the stove, and even then, some stoves only allowed 2-3 pots to cook at a time. And in small homes, the larger, improved cookstoves required more floor space, which was a challenge.

However, the health and safety benefits were profound. The open flame and smoke that traditional cookstoves produced was no longer causing issues like damage to lungs or eyes, or causing burns. Cooking fuel was reduced by 50% and the stove resulted in faster cooking times.

Since completion of my project, over one hundred stoves have been installed– a very gratifying and sustainable result. Moreover, it was a real joy to see mothers no longer having to wipe tears from their eyes due to smoke irritation, toddlers no longer getting close to an open flame, and walls and ceilings no longer covered with nasty soot. Folks spent less time or money acquiring firewood, and to my benefit, I was invited to stay for many meals. This face-to-face contact with those we serve is one of the many rewards of Peace Corps service.

About the author: Greg Plimpton of Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., is currently serving in Peru as a Water and Sanitation volunteer. Plimpton began his service in 2011, and is currently the Peace Corps Volunteer Coordinator (PCVC) in charge ofEnergy and Climate Partnership of the Americas (ECPA) , renewable energy and climate change projects.

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.

Something to Be Thankful For

By Kathleen Stewart

Kathleen Stewart examines a stove.

Kathleen Stewart examines a stove.

On Thanksgiving, stuffed with turkey and pie, I can summon just enough creativity to be thankful for the usual stuff—a roof over my head, food on the table, and my family’s health and happiness. I don’t tend to remember to be thankful for the modern conveniences that make all of the above possible.

This year, I am officially giving thanks for my natural gas heater. Whenever a slip of chill creeps into my drafty old house, warm nights are just a flip of a switch away. With heat so instantaneously available, it’s easy to forget that 3 billion people worldwide rely on wood, dung, charcoal, coal, and biomass (fuel derived from organic matter, usually plants) to cook for their families and warm their homes.

Even on the Navajo Nation, where high voltage transmission lines crisscross the land to bring electricity to Las Vegas, Phoenix, and Los Angeles, approximately 60% of families use coal, coke, or wood to heat their homes. About 30% of families use coal as their primary heating fuel.

In 2010, researchers from the U.S. Geological Survey and Dine College (the Navajo Nation’s institute of higher education) surveyed 137 homes in the Navajo town of Shiprock, NM. In this town, with average December/January lows of 19 degrees Fahrenheit, the researchers found that 77% of the homes used stoves primarily for heating, and 25% of families burned coal for heat in stoves that were not specifically designed for coal. They also found that 26% of the stoves were ten or more years old.

Navajo town of Shiprock, NM

Navajo town of Shiprock, NM

The researchers noted that many of the stoves were improperly vented, with visible cracks in the chimneys, or no chimney at all.

The indoor smoke poses serious health risks, particularly for children and the elderly, but there is no easy solution. There are no EPA certified coal stoves, and most newer coal stoves are designed to burn cleaner-burning anthracite coal, not the types (bituminous and subbituminous) available—cheap or free—on the Navajo Nation. With a median household income of $20,000 and limited existing infrastructure, gas and electricity are generally too costly.

That’s why we and our EPA colleagues have teamed up with partners at Dine College to identify and research heating options that will reduce exposure to coal smoke from home heating on the Navajo Nation. The end result will help provide stakeholders with an understanding of the best alternatives to reduce health and environmental impacts from home heating—alternatives that are technically, economically, and culturally feasible.

Last night I fell asleep curled around my home’s heater vent after the kids went to bed. I crave being warm like a snail craves its shell. In fact, I am actually allergic to being cold. Look that allergy up and then be thankful for two new things this Thanksgiving.

Learn more about EPA research and programs on how to heat your home while minimizing the health impacts:

 

About the Author: Environmental scientist Kathleen Stewart helps concerned communities understand risks from indoor and outdoor air pollution. For this project, she is working with Agency research scientist Paul Solomon, who has extensive experience developing ways to measure particulate matter in the air, and to better understand the relationships between air pollution sources and exposure risks.

 

 

Editor's Note: The views expressed here are intended to explain EPA policy. They do not change anyone's rights or obligations. You may share this post. However, please do not change the title or the content, or remove EPA’s identity as the author. If you do make substantive changes, please do not attribute the edited title or content to EPA or the author.

EPA's official web site is www.epa.gov. Some links on this page may redirect users from the EPA website to specific content on a non-EPA, third-party site. In doing so, EPA is directing you only to the specific content referenced at the time of publication, not to any other content that may appear on the same webpage or elsewhere on the third-party site, or be added at a later date.

EPA is providing this link for informational purposes only. EPA cannot attest to the accuracy of non-EPA information provided by any third-party sites or any other linked site. EPA does not endorse any non-government websites, companies, internet applications or any policies or information expressed therein.