Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Stoves and disease

A blessing of modern life that feels decidedly mixed is the need to accept that seemingly pleasant old-fashioned ways are untenable and even dangerous.  Tiresome safety-conscious reformers have long had a way of pointing out that, say, the elegant horse and carriage brings with it piles of horse shit; the classic car's glossy dashboards are blindingly so; and the delicious all-American meal of burger, fries, and pop has abhorrent ingredients. You'd almost rather not know, but there it is.

So, too, I'm sorry to say, must go the open fire, with its beauty, its simplicity, its utility, its potent symbolism, and its many chemicals and particulates that lead to childhood pneumonia and a host of other diseases, both respiratory and otherwise.* I'm stretching the analogy, of course: a fire for s'mores is worlds apart from a fire for flatbreads.

Built fires are, in fact, a scourge. People suffer and die prematurely, as do forests and ecosystems and the climate, when fire is used for everyday cooking and warmth. In a recent New Yorker article (available by subscription only, alas) "Hearth Surgery," Burkhard Bilger describes it thus: "Clean air...contains less than fifteen micrograms of fine particles per cubic metre. Five times that amount will set off a smoke alarm. Three hundred times as much--roughly what an open fire produces--will slowly kill you. Wood smoke, as sweet as it smells, is a caustic swirl of chemical agents, including benzene, butadiene, styrene, formaldehyde, dioxin, and methylene chloride....Indoor smoke kills a million and a half people annually." Not to mention heats the atmosphere with terrible efficacy.

Seems like a low-hanging fruit, no? Get people cheap, powerful, clean stoves; prevent suffering, deforestation, and global warming. But it turns out that designing and introducing good cookstoves present knotty engineering and cultural problems. As Bilger explains, it's hard to come up with a stove that's simultaneously efficient, cheap, clean, durable, and easy to use. And many people accustomed to their usual way of cooking aren't eager to change. (As the New York Times put it in a recent article, can you imagine asking a traditional Italian cook to make risotto in a microwave?)

But stove development is hot. It has attracted organizations and passionate hobbyists who like the technical challenge and the idea of saving lives and the planet. To learn more, check out the blog Improved Biomass Stoves for discussions of stoves and stovers (as developers of stoves often call themselves). BioEnergy Lists and Rocket Stoves are resource sites for stove developers. The journal Indoor Air reports on these issues (free access to developing-world institutions). Then, too, there are GTZStove CampETHOSDarfur Cookstoves; and the Ashden Awards, among many other sites. Lists of relevant links much more comprehensive than mine can be found here and here.

Let's hope that good stoves spread everywhere and make open fires a matter of misguided nostalgia.

*Carbon monoxide poisoning, pneumonia, lung cancer, bronchitis, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, heart disease, high blood pressure, low birth weight, cataracts...

1 comment:

  1. Very disturbing. I didn't realize that our cozy evenings in front of the fireplace were potential health hazards. I understood the dangers of open fires on a larger scale (the fire-ravaged world in The Road) but I hadn't thought about it on a "medium" scale. Thanks for the post and enlightening me.