Traditional cookstoves are to blame for much of the pollution that leads to millions of deaths in the developing world. Safer stoves are available, but few people buy them. Stanford researchers say that’s because the newer models aren’t designed to give people what they really want.
Preparing a meal in some of the world’s poorest rural areas can turn an ordinary activity into a deadly chore. Animal dung and crop scraps often fuel the indoor fires used for cooking. And before any food fills a hungry belly, thick black smoke fills a family’s lungs.
Pneumonia and other acute respiratory infections kill about 1 million people a year in low-income countries, making them the top cause of death in the developing world and the greatest threat to children’s lives. Makeshift stoves belch much of the polluted air leading to those illnesses. About 75 percent of South Asians and nearly half the world’s population use open-fire stoves inside their homes.
Governments and humanitarian organizations have urged people to trade their traditional stoves for safer models, many of which have chimneys that funnel smoke out of a home. But the switch from dangerous stoves has been slow to come, even though most people using them know they’re harmful.
A Bangladeshi woman stokes a flame under a traditional stove. Indoor air pollution from stoves like this have contributed to millions of deaths in the developing world.
They don’t think respiratory illness is the biggest health problem that they have,” he said. “And when you ask them what they want from a stove, they talk about saving time and having better fuel efficiency. They’re not talking about smoke emissions.”
In the first of two studies, Miller – joined by Yale researchers and Lynn Hildemann, a Stanford engineering professor affiliated with the university’s Woods Institute for the Environment – surveyed about 2,500 women who cook for their families in rural Bangladesh.
Nearly all of the women use traditional stoves, and 94 percent of them said they know the smoke from their stoves can make them sick. But 76 percent said the smoke is less harmful than polluted water, and 66 percent said it wasn’t as dangerous as rotten food.
When asked what features are most important in a stove, the women talked about things that could save fuel costs, cooking time and the hassle that goes into collecting fuel.
“A big implication is that the health education and social marketing approaches aren’t going to work,” Miller said. “You need to get inside the heads of the users and figure out what they really want and value – even if unrelated to smoke and health – and then give it to them.”