Day 2 – Cooking Smoke – The Numbers

Mara and I wake up every morning and put the kettle on for the coffee. Maybe we’ll have some eggs for breakfast, maybe not. Later in the day some quesadillas perhaps, or brown some meat for spaghetti. Boil the noodles. Who want’s a delicious cup of Mexican hot chocolate? The mechanics of cooking never enter our thoughts, we just turn the knob and out comes the gas, quick as you please. Rarely do we even think about turning on the kitchen vent, this ignominy is usually reserved for burned tortillas or popcorn. Call it taking things for granted if you want, we live in a world where cooking is relatively consequence-free. Sure, maybe we shouldn’t have another quesadilla, at least the quesadilla isn’t going to give us emphysema.

But what if you lived in the highlands of Guatemala? Did you know that there is a good chance the quesadilla would give you emphysema? Indirectly, but it’s true. You’d better hope you aren’t under the age of five either, because you’re even more likely to die from that quesadilla than your parents are. You see that cloud of mosquitoes hovering around? There’s a decent chance you’ll get malaria from them. Better to get the malaria than to make that quesadilla, since you’d have better odds of surviving. I’ve taken a little creative license with my examples, but the numbers don’t lie.

  • 4.3 million people die prematurely each year due to illnesses caused by exposure to cooking smoke
  • Cooking smoke kills more people each year than HIV/AIDS, malaria, and tuberculosis combined
  • Over 50% of premature deaths are children under the age of 5
  • Over 40% of the world still cooks on solid fuels

Now you see what I meant yesterday when I said I was so shocked by the scope of the problem. But that’s not all, folks. Here’s a little list of some medical issues you might look forward to after making our hypothetical quesadilla…

  • Lung cancer
  • Heart disease
  • Stroke
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • Cataracts
  • Blindness (the leading cause in developing countries)
  • Severe burns (even worse because medical care is scarce)
  • Did I mention death? I think that counts as a medical issue.

But the act of cooking itself is not the only act in this dangerous play. There are also a host of gender issues that figure into the equation, since women in developing countries are predominantly homemakers and cooks. Many households gather their fuel, and while performing this task they are exposed to dangers such as animal attacks or gender-based violence. Top that off with this, half of all pneumonia deaths among children are the direct result of cooking smoke inhalation.


Hungry yet?

Plenty of doom and gloom here, but the health effects of smoke are only one aspect of the problem. People don’t cook with solid fuel because it’s fun and nostalgic, they do it because it’s all they can afford. The corollary to this statement is that the vast majority of people who cook on solid fuel are among the lowest income levels, as in the $2 per day global poverty line. When you exist on this level, you don’t have much breathing room (no pun intended) for emergencies. This is one reason that these diseases so often lead to death, they remain untreated due to lack of money.

Ever heard the phrase “cycle of poverty”? It has many facets, unfortunately for many cooking is one of those facets.  The cost of cooking fuel can be as high as 25% of the daily income for the most impoverished urban dwellers. Paradoxically, some spend more money on solid fuel than they would on propane simply because they can’t bear the up-front cost of switching or the high replacement cost of a bottle of propane. One more facet of the cycle is called “time poverty”. It translates like this; if you spend one hour doing this then you can’t spend one hour doing that. Every hour spent gathering fuel is an hour you can’t spend on more productive activities, such as farming, educating your children, or working for money. The global average for time spent gathering fuel wood is 5 hours per day. It is easy to see why it is called a cycle, and equally easy to understand how people become trapped in it. Introduce illness into the equation? Forget about it.

Alright already, enough with statistics and sadness. We are on a journey, right? And who wants to be on a sad journey? There is hope. I spoke earlier of diseases and death, and I’m sure you are well familiar with how we develop cures and treat disease in the modern world. I’m also sure you know how much all of this costs, you are reminded every time you get the bill for your medical insurance. The funny thing is that these illnesses, as much as they stem from cooking smoke, are entirely preventable. The cure already exists, it doesn’t have to be cooked up in an fancy lab somewhere. It isn’t as expensive as the disease, not by a long shot.

To be continued…

– Kyle

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3 thoughts on “Day 2 – Cooking Smoke – The Numbers”

  1. Kyle, did you write this?  It’s brilliant in both conception and construction.  I’ll happily pass this along to friends.


    1. Thanks Ron, I did write that. Unless noted, I’ll be writing all the content on our website. I will be hosting visiting authors occasionally though (looking forward to that!)


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