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Examining ways to reduce health risks from cookstove pollution in developing countries

In much of the developing world, health hazards involving food extend beyond the edible substances being consumed. Makeshift stoves fueled by crop scraps and animal dung emit plumes of black smoke that fill homes and can cause pneumonia and other acute respiratory infections. Such cooking methods are used by nearly three billion people and contribute to an estimated two million death a year, according to data from the World Health Organization.

In a paper published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, Grant Miller, PhD, associate professor of medicine at Stanford's Center for Primary Care and Outcomes Research, and colleagues explore why people are reluctant to switch to safer cookstoves, many of which have chimneys that funnel smoke out of a home. A Stanford Report article describes the work:

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.

"People know their cookstoves are bad, but they don't think cookstoves are the most important problem they face," Miller said. "They'd rather spend their money fixing those things and getting their kids into a good school than buying a new cookstove."

Investigators found among the Bangladeshi women they surveyed that concerns such as fuel costs and cooking time held more importance than reducing pollution when considering a stove. Miller, senior author of the study, commented on the findings, saying:

A big implication is that the health education and social marketing approaches aren't going to work... 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.

Previously: New insight into asthma-air pollution link

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