According to Kirk Smith, an expert in health and climate effects of household energy at UC Berkeley, “this is a big problem, bigger than outdoor air pollution or dirty water.” Every year, four million people – mostly women and children in developing countries – die prematurely because of this. The problem is food preparation; meals prepared over burning wood, charcoal, or animal dung creates indoor pollution that is three times as great as Beijing’s notorious air pollution. In addition to the detrimental health effects of breathing in such air, the practice of cooking food over fire means that women and children lose educational and work opportunities, as they spend significant amounts of time gathering fuel for the fires.
Higher ed is turning an eye to this problem. Catlin Powers, of Harvard’s Center for Health and the Global Environment, has developed a solar stove, a smoke-free cooking apparatus that uses sunlight at ninety-two percent efficiency. Powers is also working to release an energy-storage battery so that people can use the solar stove when the sun isn’t shining.
Clean energy is crucial to overcoming our climate challenge, and this example also shows that the clean energy co-benefits (improved health, longer lives, giving children the opportunity to attend school, allowing women to work outside the home) are manifold. By drawing attention to the real problems that people are faced with around the world, and ways that clean energy can help solve these problems, higher ed is putting a more human, relatable face on clean energy. If our changing climate and attendant problems aren’t convincing enough to embrace clean energy, the plight of people suffering from indoor air pollution might do it.
Cooking with energy from the sun -- a technique featured last month in an episode of "Top Chef" -- could soon put a major dent in what some experts call the world's greatest environmental health issue.
Every day, nearly half the people in the world prepare their meals over burning wood, charcoal or animal dung. And every year, more than 4 million people -- most of them women and children -- die prematurely from the resulting household smoke. The practice also contributes to deforestation and climate change.
"This is a big problem, bigger than outdoor air pollution or dirty water," said Kirk Smith, an expert in health and climate effects of household energy at the University of California, Berkeley, School of Public Health.
But the issue has remained widely overlooked -- until now.
It was sometime in 2007 or 2008 when Catlin Powers -- now CEO of One Earth Designs, whose solar stove was featured in the "Top Chef" episode -- happened upon the issue herself. Powers was studying climate change in the Himalayas, and one day, a curious nomadic family asked her what she was doing. When she tried to explain, in broken Tibetan, that she was "studying smoke in the sky," they laughed. What a ridiculous thing to do, they said, when the sky was blue yet their home was filled with smoke.
Sure enough, Powers' team detected a level of pollution inside the family's home that was 20 times as great as Beijing's air at the time. (It would be three or four times as dirty as Beijing's notoriously bad air today.)