Frontiers: Where there’s smoke…

Cleaner Cookstoves

Outdoor air pollution from factories and automobiles seems to dominate the news. But there’s another, just as sinister, form of pollution and it’s coming from inside the house.

Portrait: Ellison CarterEllison Carter, a postdoctoral fellow in energy, air pollution and health at the Institute on the Environment, discussed her research on environmental and health impacts of indoor air pollution at Frontiers in the Environment in February.

In her presentation, “Where There’s Smoke…Evaluating the Benefits of Household Energy Improvements in Developing Countries,” Carter explained why indoor air pollution in developing nations is a particularly challenging problem.

“In the United States, household energy needs are typically met with electricity and natural gas or a combination thereof, but in developing countries the picture is quite different,” Carter said. “Solid fuels dominate, and solid fuels can be anything from coal and wood to animal dung, agricultural residue and waste as well as a variety of biomass products that can be processed or unprocessed.”

Around 3 billion people worldwide use solid fuels for cooking and heating, with the greatest concentrations in sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia. That means nearly half of the world’s population is at a greater risk for respiratory and circulatory diseases, according to Carter.

“So what is it about household air pollution that’s so bad?” she asked. “Combustion of any kind is incomplete, so solid fuel burning in your home will produce CO2 and water but it also produces products of incomplete combustion, and some of those are gas phase pollutants and some of those are particle phase pollutants.”

Smaller particulate pollutants are especially dangerous as they are easily taken in by the body. Carter’s research focused on particulate matter under 2.5 microns (PM2.5) from cookstoves and heating sources in China. Some pollutants, such as black carbon, are smaller than a micron and may have not only harmful human health impacts but environmental consequences as well.

“We’re really excited to measure black carbon not just for the health impact part of our study but also to gain a sense of what are the black carbon emissions from household air pollution, are they contributing to black carbon regional emissions in different scenarios and furthermore, is that having a real impact on climate?” Carter said. “Therefore, if we know if it is, if we put in this intervention, can we see a decrease in that impact?”

So what’s being done to reduce the pollution in developing countries? Carter is working to reduce pollutant generation through lower-polluting stoves and fuels and coupling heating and cooking systems. Additionally, she points out the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves‘ goal of supplying 100 million new cookstoves in the next six years.

“100 million cookstoves by 2020 is an ambitious goal,” she said. “I don’t shy away from ambitious goals. I think that they need to be entered, though, with good information. So the goal of our project has been to look at the impacts of an intervention and quantify the health benefits and quantify the reduced impact on climate because of an intervention so that government agencies and non-government organizations moving forward with a solution can do so with the knowledge that the intervention they’re pursuing will have the benefits that they’re hoping to see.”

Watch Carter’s full presentation online.

John Sisser is a communications assistant with the Institute on the Environment.