Do you use wood fuel or charcoal for cooking? If yes, you are not the only one. Most households in Africa use solid fuels for cooking, heating and lighting. ‘Solid fuels’ means, wood, crop residues, animal dung, charcoal and coal. And nearly half the world’s population cooks over an open fire.
There are good reasons why these practices are so common. ‘Solid’ fuels such as wood are often the most easily available, and cheapest fuels. And we would not want to tell you how to cook good food..
However, what is sometimes not widely known is how damaging to your health some traditional cooking practices can be. Smoke from traditional cooking fires will kill over 550,000 Africans this year.
The majority of these will be women and children
Harmful smoke is produced when the fuel does not burn completely. This does not mean that not all of the fuel has been burnt – rather that because of the type of fuel, or the type of stove, the chemical reaction that takes place when things burn is not completed – you can see the harmful waste products that are produced as smoke. Tiny particles in the smoke can go deep into your lungs when you breathe and cause damage.
Health effects on children:
- Pneumonia: inhaling smoke damages children’s lungs and makes them more vulnerable to pneumonia. Half of the deaths due to pneumonia in children younger than 5 years old are caused by exposure to pollution inside the home
- Higher temperatures
- Flash flooding
Health effects on adults:
- Lung diseases like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, where the sufferer finds it increasingly difficult to breathe over many years.
- Lung cancer
- Heart disease
|Ranking of fuels (best to worst) in terms of effect on health||Ranking of fire and stove types (best to worst) in terms of effect on health|
Changing to a cooking method which exposes you and your family to less smoke is the best way to protect yourselves from the harmful effects of smoke. For example, changing from an open fire to a surrounded fire, or from wood fuel to LPG.
However, we understand that this may not be a simple thing to do. Different fuels and different stoves may be expensive, and not widely available. There are some organisations running programmes to improve access to better stoves in Africa, but it may be some time before this reaches you.
In the meantime, there are simple steps you can take to reduce the exposure of you and your family to harmful smoke
- Keep children away from the cooking area while using the fire, and try to avoid breathing in the smoke as much as possible
- Drying fuel wood before use decreases the amount of smoke produced on burning
- Try to avoid cooking in the same area that you live and sleep in. Could you try cooking out in the open air? Or in an open structure away from your house?
- Otherwise, take steps to improve the ventilation of the cooking area. If your house has windows, always open them when using the fire. Maybe you could make the windows larger, or open up the eaves space in your house
- Building a chimney is a good way to increase the ventilation of the cooking area. However, it is very important to clean the chimney. If the chimney is blocked by ash, it is no better having no chimney at all
- Or, you could put a hood over the fire or stove, to direct the smoke away from the person working with the fire, preferably to the outside air.
But isn’t smoke protective against insects? If I reduce the smoke in my home, will my family be more vulnerable to mosquitoes and malaria? This is a good question. However, the evidence shows that decreasing the level of pollution in the home does not increase the risk of malaria.
It is important to know that ‘improving’ your stove or fire to make it safer will often also make the fire or stove more efficient; so you need less fuel. This can save time and money spent on acquiring fuel.