Killer in the kitchen

Several news articles highlighted the deteriorating air quality in Delhi and its impact on health. Many of my friends and colleagues started contemplating options that can save them from air-pollution. They discussed options ranging from buying masks and air-purifiers to shifting to a city with better air quality. These frequent news and articles about air-pollution made them really concerned.

Mainstream media has an unparalleled capacity of influencing our priorities. However, mainstream media is very stubbornly selective in what it chooses to highlight and what it chooses to ignore.
One such issue that never got duly highlighted by the mainstream media is the impact of household air pollution (HAP) on health.

A traditional cookstove in a rural household

A traditional cookstove in a rural household

Annually more than 4.3 million deaths occur due to HAP. The deaths are caused by HAP from household cooking. HAP is a silent killer in many households. The majority of victims are women and children from economically backward rural population. These households use solid fuels such as wood, crop-residue, dung, charcoal etc in their traditional cookstoves, often made of three stones put together. There are more than 3 billion still dependent on solid fuel for their cooking energy needs (see here for more info).
These lives can be saved if these households shift to cleaner cooking fuel such as liquid petroleum gas (LPG), electricity; or improved biomass cookstoves which can be used with solid fuels but emissions are within the permissible safe limit. In fact, improved biomass cookstoves make a very good case for replacing traditional cookstoves. These can be used with locally available fuel and are considerable cheaper (cost USD 10–70) than LPG. Sadly, moving from traditional cookstoves to clean cooking devices is not an easy transition.
LPG is expensive and access to reliable and affordable electricity is limited. Furthermore, households have limited budget for cooking fuel and stoves. Many households build their own cookstoves and collect fuels at nominal or no cost. This makes them reluctant to spend a significant sum of money from their limited resources. Households are also not aware of the extent of health risk. Most believe that smoke is just an irritating inconvenience associated with cooking. In some areas, LPG distribution network disappoints many of the households that aspire to get LPG.
There are behavioural challenges as well. Households have been using traditional cookstoves since generations. The traditional cookstove is central in many of rituals and festivals. Switching to a new cooking devices often requires changing the way a person cooks or compromising the convenience of their age-old cooking methods. Improved cookstoves are also not seen as aspirational as LPGs or induction cooker. Several households also do not feel comfortable paying the upfront cost of improved cookstoves despite its economic and health benefits.
All of the above challenges are surmountable. But the issue itself has not got its due attention from policy makers and most importantly from the users of traditional cookstoves. Households do not feel the need to move from life threatening inefficient traditional cookstoves. They have limited awareness on its ill-effects and fail to see the benefits of clean cooking devices in context of its cost.
Creating mass awareness about the ill-effects of emission from traditional cookstoves, and need for switching to a clean cooking device is essential in solving this problem. Our media can play a monumental role. I hope more main-stream media houses start highlighting this issue so that it goes up in the priority list of policy makers and households.

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