About the Authors: Kris Balderston serves as Special Representative for the Secretary of State's Global Partnerships Initiative, and Jacob Moss serves as U.S. Coordinator for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
On Wednesday, the world's leading general medical journal The Lancet released a major new report which estimates that household air pollution attributed to cooking over open fires or basic cookstoves causes the premature deaths of approximately four million people annually -- many of them women and young children. This number -- which includes 3.5 million deaths associated with indoor exposures and another 500,000 deaths from cookstoves' contribution to outdoor air pollution -- is more than double previous estimates and underscores the need to renew efforts to prevent these deaths.
Three billion people globally rely on solid fuels like wood, charcoal, agricultural waste, animal dung, and coal for household energy needs, often burning them inside their homes in inefficient and poorly ventilated stoves or open fires. Polluting stoves and fuels used indoors expose women and their families to air pollution levels as much as 50 times greater than World Health Organization guidelines for clean air. Household air pollution exposure can cause heart and lung diseases in adults, pneumonia in children, and low birth weight among infants.
Women and children are affected most as they are exposed to high levels of pollution inside the home and often spend several hours every day collecting fuel -- time that could be much better spent on schooling or income generating activities such as farming or starting a microenterprise. Even households that purchase (rather than collect) solid fuels can save money by switching to cleaner stoves that are also more fuel-efficient.
The new estimate of the premature deaths due to household air pollution represents a significant increase from previous estimates of two million annual premature deaths. The study in The Lancet cited household air pollution as the fourth worst health risk factor globally, second worst among women and girls, and fifth worst among men and boys. It is the worst of the environmental risk factors affecting health (such as outdoor air pollution and unimproved water sources and sanitation), both globally and in poor regions. It is also the single worst health risk factor in South Asia and second worst in most parts of Sub-Saharan Africa.
This increase in estimated premature deaths from cookstove pollution is largely attributable to new evidence that allows for the inclusion of additional health impacts from exposure to cookstove smoke. For example, the new estimate includes effects of smoke inhalation on adult cardiovascular mortality and lung cancer associated with burning biomass, neither of which was previously considered. The new estimate also includes the contribution of cookstove smoke to the burden of disease associated with outdoor air pollution, a major problem in Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa.
Globally, the health impacts of household air pollution exceeds those of some of the most burdensome diseases in developing countries, including malaria, tuberculosis, or HIV/AIDS -- all of which are expected to decline substantially over the next two decades as a direct result of well-funded public health intervention campaigns in recent years. The success of these campaigns tells us that reducing the burden of household air pollution on global public health is also possible -- if the necessary resources and strategic vision are brought to bear.
In September 2010, Secretary Clinton helped launch the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and protect the environment. Led by the United Nations Foundation, the Alliance has grown to nearly 500 partners, including 38 countries. The U.S. commitment alone has reached up to $114 million.
The groundbreaking approach taken by the Alliance involves bringing together a diverse group of partners -- including governments, the private sector, multilateral institutions, microenterprises, foundations, local women's groups, and others -- to help overcome the market barriers that currently impede the production, deployment, and use of clean cookstoves in the developing world. A single actor can only do so much, but a truly cross-sectoral partnership such as the Alliance can solve this global problem at the scale it demands.
Together with its partners, the Alliance is making incredible progress towards its ambitious interim goal of 100 million clean cookstoves adopted by 2020. But our work is just beginning.
This new study makes more urgent than ever the absolute necessity of our efforts to lead the globe towards universal adoption of clean and efficient cooking solutions.
We invite you to join us as we seek to solve this critical issue and save lives.