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A woman bends over an improved cookstove in Cameroon. Photo courtesy of Trees for the Future/Flickr.

Cookstove Smoke is “Largest Environmental Threat,” Global Health Study Finds

In a finding that confirms the devastating health impact of energy poverty, the landmark Global Burden of Disease study published today tallied 3.5 million annual deaths from respiratory illness due to burning of wood, brush, dung, and other biomass for fuel.

Cooking on traditional cookstoves is a far greater risk factor than poor water and sanitation, lead or radon pollution, or smog (ozone) and outdoor soot, according to the study in today’s Lancet, the largest ever systematic effort to describe the global distribution and causes of mortality. The data indicate that respiratory illness from breathing the emissions from inefficient cookstoves causes more than double the annual deaths attributed either to malaria (1.2 million) or to HIV/AIDS (1.5 million).

Seven research institutions from around the world, including Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Imperial College London, the University of Tokyo, and the World Health Organization (WHO), collaborated on the study, which was funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Related: “How Healthy is the World?”) The research was much expanded in scope from the 1990 Global Burden of Disease study funded by the World Bank.

The new study, if compared to the figures from 20 years ago, marks a decline in global deaths due to cookstove pollution (which stood at 4.6 million in the 1990 study.) But it is roughly double the 2 million annual figure that WHO has been attributing to deaths due to indoor smoke from solid fuels.

“These results provide further momentum to our mission to ensure that cooking doesn’t kill,” said Radha Muthiah, executive director of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership that has been working to deploy cleaner, safer cookstoves.

Added Kirk R. Smith, a professor of global environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley, and a co-author of The Lancet article, “One of the most alarming findings is that smoke from cooking fires was found to be the largest environmental threat to health in the world today.”

For more on this issue, see our previous coverage: