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Making Cooking Safer in the Developing World

A cooking stove called the Chulha just won an INDEX award for "design to improve life." Why? Because according to the World Health Organization, about half of all households worldwide—and 90 percent of rural households—get their cooking and heating fuel from "biomass" sources like coal, wood, charc...

A cooking stove called the Chulha just won an INDEX award for "design to improve life." Why? Because according to the World Health Organization, about half of all households worldwide—and 90 percent of rural households—get their cooking and heating fuel from "biomass" sources like coal, wood, charcoal, or dung:
"When these fuels are used in poorly ventilated conditions and burned in open fires or inefficient stoves, conditions common in households throughout the developing world, may result in indoor air pollution levels well above those in even the dirtiest of cities."
The results are higher rates of respiratory illness and mortality, especially in children—the WHO reports that in 2000, two million children younger than 5 died of acute respiratory infections. Studies also suggest a link between indoor air pollution and several non-respiratory health problems, including stillborn births and miscarriages, low birth weight, heart disease, and even cataracts.

Chulha stove by Philips Design, courtesy INDEX

The Chulha stove and projects like it can't solve these problems entirely, but they offer an inexpensive way to reduce such indoor pollution from cooking---coupled in this case with the potential for economic development. Philips Design, the Chulha's creator, is offering free intellectual property rights to local entrepreneurs who want to build and sell the stove in places like rural India, where it was tested.

And toxic fumes aren't the only significant challenge faced by cooks in the developing world. In our 2007 "Young Innovators" special issue, the magazine profiled Christina Galitsky, who helped design an energy-efficient, portable cookstove for women in Darfur. By using less wood as fuel, the stove reduced the amount of time and distance involved in gathering firewood—and thus reduced the women's risk of being attacked and raped by militiamen roaming the countryside. And by being portable, the stove made it easier for the women to pack up and flee when such militias were approaching their villages and settlements.

All of this makes me stop and think...I've been whining lately about not having a "real" oven in my new apartment, but I do have a range top, fueled by gas which I can summon with a simple twist of a dial. I also have a microwave/convection oven, a toaster, a digital food steamer, and a backyard barbecue grill, as well as a bevy of gadgets and appliances to help prepare the food for cooking. There are various vents, fans and alarms to keep the air in our home clean and safe. It's no Top Chef kitchen, but it's certainly luxurious compared to stoking a toxic fire in a tiny, unventilated room, or having to risk one's life to gather cooking fuel, isn't it?
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About Amanda Bensen

Amanda Bensen is a former assistant editor at Smithsonian and is now a senior editor at the Nature Conservancy.

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