The Challenges of Cleaning Up Cooking
Khushboo Kushwaha has a few years before she will have to squat in front of a filthy, smoking open stove three times a day to cook meals for her family, as her older sister and cousins do now.
Khushboo is 11, and the girls in her home usually take up cooking duties as teenagers. But the smoke that billows from the wood and dried dung they burn, stinging the older girls’ eyes and throats, already affects her.
The air in the semi-open courtyard of the Kushwaha family’s home is heavy and choking. The older girls patiently prepare food for as long as six hours a day, sifting flour, rolling dough and tending to the vegetable and lentil dishes that bubble atop rough-hewn clay stoves.
“I don’t like the smoke,” Khushboo said. “I cough when food is being made,” and her eyes get red.
About three billion people, more than 40 percent of the world’s population, cook and heat their homes with dirty fuels like wood, dung and coal, burned on open fires or in traditional stoves, according to the World Health Organization. From China and Laos to Nigeria and Ethiopia, the resulting smoke prematurely kills about four million people a year, the organization says.
The smoky fuels, known as chula in India and biomass among scientists, are also a driver of climate change, in part because the black carbon particles they create absorb heat from the sun. It is not clear, however, whether a mass switchover to the alternative most readily available in India, liquefied petroleum gas, or L.P.G., would benefit the climate or be a small detriment, said Kirk Smith, professor of global environmental health at the University of California, Berkeley, and a leading voice on household air pollution.