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Curbing Cooking Smoke That Kills More People Than Malaria

Environmental hazards sicken or kill millions of people — soot or smog in the air, for example, or pollutants in drinking water. But the most dangerous stuff happens where the food is made — in peoples' kitchens.

That's according to the World Health Organization, which says that the smoke and gases from cooking fires in the world's poorest countries contribute to nearly two million deaths a year — that's more than malaria.

Burning wood, crop waste, charcoal or dung does the damage, filling homes with smoke and blackening walls. It's women and children who suffer the most, because they are the ones tending the fires. But it's not that easy a problem to fix.

Several scientists from the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland are calling attention to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. It brings in celebrities, chefs and politicians to help create awareness for the need for cleaner fuels and better cookstoves.

The technology is easy, but getting the stoves and cleaner fuels to impoverished millions is not. It's not as simple as saying, OK, buy something cleaner and your life will improve. There are social and economic barriers galore.

Scientists say their role is to do the research to show how much indoor air pollution from stoves they have to cut to make a difference. To tackle pneumonia, for example, research in Guatemala showed that cookstove pollutants had to be cut at least in half to show any real health benefits, according to an article in the journal Science, published last week.

National Institutes of Health Director Francis Collins and others say that most people in poor countries who cook with open fires don't realize what's happening to their health. "Success has been limited by a number of factors," they say, "including a lack of awareness of the problem, limited research into the health risks, lack of affordable improved stoves or fuels that reduce exposures to safer levels, and the logistical challenges of solving a problem that affects almost 3 billion of the poorest people on the planet."

The Global Alliance and the cookstove industry announced last year that they would work together to create a market for better cookstoves, under the aegis of the United Nations. The U.S. government has committed over $50 million. Half of that will go to NIH for research on how much indoor air pollution needs to be reduced to produce real health gains.

Copyright 2011 National Public Radio. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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