From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published November 8, 2012 08:27 AM

Open Air Fires

For millenia mankind has used fires to keep warm and cook. What could be so wrong in burning a little wood? Expanding its focus on the link between the atmosphere and human health, the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) is launching a three-year, international study into the impact of open-fire cooking on regional air quality and disease. The study will break new ground by bringing together atmospheric scientists, engineers, statisticians, and social scientists who will analyze the effects of smoke from traditional cooking methods on households, villages, and entire regions.

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Outdoor cook stoves are commonly used for cooking and heating food in developing countries. Developing countries consume little energy compared to developed nations; however, over 50% of the energy that they do use goes into cooking food. The average rural family spends 20% or more of its income purchasing wood or charcoal for cooking. Living in the city provides no refuge either as the urban poor frequently spend a significant portion of their income on the purchase of wood or charcoal.

Besides the high expense, another problem of cooking over an open fire is the increased health problems brought on from the smoke, particularly lung and eye ailments, but also birth defects. Replacing the traditional 3-rock cook stove with an improved one and venting the smoke out of the house through a chimney can dramatically improve a family’s health.

NCAR researchers will combine newly developed sensors with computer and statistical models to look at what happens to human health when traditional cooking methods are used. They will also evaluate whether newer, more efficient cookstoves could reduce disease and positively affect regional air quality.

The researchers will focus primarily on northern Ghana, where they will examine possible links between air pollutants and such diseases as meningitis. Their findings are expected to provide information to policymakers and health officials in other developing countries where open-fire cooking or inefficient stoves are common.

"Often when you visit remote villages in Ghana, they’re shrouded in haze for many miles from all the fires used for cooking," says NCAR scientist Christine Wiedinmyer, an atmospheric chemist overseeing the project. "Given that an estimated three billion people worldwide are cooking over fire and smoke, we need to better understand how these pollutants are affecting public health as well as regional air quality and even the climate."

Wiedinmyer and her colleagues will use a novel combination of local and regional air quality measurements—including specialized smartphone applications that are more mobile than traditional air quality sensors—and cutting-edge computer models of weather, air quality, and climate. The researchers and student assistants will also survey villagers to get their views on possible connections between open-fire cooking and disease as well as their interest in adopting different cooking methods.

Cooking fires in developing countries are a leading source of carbon monoxide, particulates, and smog. These can cause a variety of symptoms, ranging from relatively mild ailments, such as headaches and nausea, to potentially life-threatening conditions, including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases.

Besides better stove design or alternate fuels, there are several simple methods to improve efficiency and reduce pollution that can be practiced.

There are three places in the cooking process where fuel can be conserved; the fuel, the stove, and the cooking pot. The greatest gains come not from the stove itself, but from how the heat the stove produces is used; paying attention to the pot rather than the stove results in the greatest fuel savings.

The first way to reduce the amount of fuel a family consumes is simply to use a cooking lid while cooking, which by itself reduces fuel consumption by 40%.

The second strategy is similar to the first; use a larger cooking pot.

Last, when cooking for a family, switching from a stove that has room for only one pot to cook at a time, to a stove where two or more pots can cook at once will often raise efficiencies by up to 40%.

For further information see Open Fires.

Stove image via Wikipedia.

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