Can cleaner cookstoves save lives?

Sichuan Field Site

A global partnership led by Institute on the Environment researcher Jill Baumgartner will investigate the health and climate impacts of advanced cooking and heating stoves as part of a three-year study on clean household energy technology in rural China.

Indoor air pollution contributes to 4 million premature deaths each year and is the single leading environmental health risk factor globally, according to the 2010 Global Burden of Disease Study. Half the world’s people breathe in the dirty smoke from coal, wood and other solid fuels burned in inefficient cooking and heating stoves. In addition to respiratory health impacts like childhood pneumonia and lung cancer, studies point to indoor smoke as a risk factor for cardiovascular disease. It is also a major contributor to regional and global climate warming.

The goal of the new project is to quantify the benefits of cleaner stoves and fuels on air quality, climate change mitigation and human health, particularly cardiovascular health, says Baumgartner.

More than half of all Chinese homes meet their energy needs with coal – a source of airborne arsenic and heavy metals – and biomass products, such as wood and crop residues. Burning these fuels emits particulate matter and toxic gases that can be harmful when inhaled day in and day out, says Ellison Carter, an IonE postdoctoral researcher on the project. “We know this smoke is bad for climate and health but need to identify technologies that can successfully reduce pollution for large numbers of homes.

Sangpu StoveThe study will use biomass that has been processed into concentrated pellets, which emit lower levels of pollutants than traditional fuel, says Carter. It will also use a stove designed by combustion experts at Tsinghua University that is more efficient than conventional stoves and gives cooks better control.

The “Improving Air Quality, Health and the Environment Through Household Energy Interventions in the Tibetan Plateau” project will begin next summer in southwestern China, with over 200 households participating. Researchers will measure regional and household air pollution over 48 hours twice a year using stationary air quality monitors to test air in the room and personal, wearable monitors to test the air being directly inhaled by household members. Measurements of blood pressure, arterial stiffness, changes in blood inflammatory markers and DNA abnormalities will help the team assess cardiovascular changes. The first year’s measurements will establish a baseline; the new stove will then be installed, followed by two more years of measurements.

The project will leverage existing programs of Tsinghua University and the Chinese government to increase adoption of clean cookstoves and integrates the expertise of the global team in these areas:

  • Household stove and fuel intervention programs – Xudong Yang, Tsinghua University, Beijing
  • Air pollution source testing and emissions characterization – James J. Schauer, University of Wisconsin-Madison
  • Exposure assessment and population health – Jill Baumgartner, University of Minnesota
  • Regional emissions, chemistry and climate modeling – Christine Wiedinmyer, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Colorado

Other investigators include Stella Daskalopoulo, a cardiovascular physician at McGill University in Montreal; Majid Ezzati, a population health scientist at Imperial College London; and Carter.

The project, recently the recipient of an EPA-STAR (Science to Achieve Results) grant, will provide important information on the kinds of air quality, climate and health benefits that can be achieved through high-quality household energy technologies under real-world conditions. It will also provide new insights into the relationship between pollution and cardiovascular risk, according to Baumgartner.

“This is an exciting time to be addressing the question, while there’s momentum behind stove dissemination,” says Carter. “We want to provide sustainable energy that accommodates lifestyle and income status and promotes healthy, productive lives.”

Images by Shan Ming, Tsinghua University