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In December 2009, The New Yorker magazine told a story about how University of California researcher Kirk Smith may have saved the lives of Angela Jiménez’s four-month-old twins. Smith was on-site in rural Guatemala with the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves as part of his ground-breaking research study on the health benefits of reducing human exposures to smoke from cookstoves.

Burkhard Bilger of The New Yorker writes: “We were getting ready to leave when Jiménez’s nine-year-old son, Wilder, lurched in with his baby sister, Milvia, in his arms. She was tightly bundled in blankets, with a blue-and-white knit cap on. Her face was covered in dried phlegm and she was crying hard, with a steady, wheezing cough. Jiménez lifted her up and laid her against her shoulder. Her daughter had been sick for eight days, she told us, and was running a fever. “You should take her to the clinic,” Smith said. “Eight days is a long time at that age.” Jiménez looked at him with hooded eyes and turned back to the stove. If she went to the clinic, they’d just send her to the hospital, she said. “And that’s where people go to die.”

“Smith later prevailed upon Jiménez to let his team drive her to his clinic, where a physician gave both infants a diagnosis of severe pneumonia. Milvia was hypoxic: her lungs were so full of fluid that they couldn’t get enough oxygen into her blood. Her twin brother, Selby, was even sicker: his blood was only eighty-two per cent oxygenated, and his lungs made crackling noises under a stethoscope. “He could pass away tonight,” Smith said.”

Angela and her family were in the group of Smith’s study that received improved cookstoves and a chimney. Smoke from unimproved cookstoves pollutes the air inside the home, putting families at risk for a number of serious chronic and acute illnesses, including pneumonia. Smith’s project estimates that close to half of the severe pneumonia in Angela’s area can be attributed to smoke from open cookfires, and on average, children fall sick with the disease every other year.

Guatemala is not alone in its reliance on traditional cooking. Around the world, close to three billion people prepare their food with cookstoves and open fires. Improving cookstoves would greatly reduce the impact of smoke exposure, which is identified by the World Health Organization as one of the top five threats to public health in developing countries.

But Angela Jimenez’ story is more than just a cautionary tale on the need to install more safe cookstoves. Smith’s study found that Jimenez was not properly maintaining her new chimney, and as a result the stove had decayed and the kitchen was blackened by soot. The moral: simply getting improved stoves into people’s homes is not enough–solutions that lead women to use and maintain the stoves are also a necessity. Smith put it this way, “You don’t get what you expect. You get what you inspect.” Recently, Smith sent around a photograph of Milvia and Selby, who are both healthy and doing “quite well.” In this instance, disaster was averted.

Kirk Smith’s study is indicative of a much broader effort to reduce exposure to smoke from cookstoves and prevent pneumonia. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, who championed Smith’s study in Guatemala, is searching for innovative ways to reduce toxic indoor air pollution. The Alliance’s primary goal is to work collectively with its 213 partners to stimulate a thriving global market for clean cookstoves and fuel. Their approach includes a wide range of activities aimed at making changes in public awareness, supply chains, local employment, consumer preferences, policy, and product design. By 2020, the Alliance seeks to achieve adoption of clean stoves and fuels in 100 million homes.

The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is one of 125 NGOs, community-based organizations, academic institutions and government agencies participating in the Global Coalition Against Child Pneumonia.

 

Originally posted by Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves: Health Effects Story: Saving a Child’s Life in Guatemala. Photo courtesy of Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

For more information: Burkhard Bilger. Annals of Invention. “Hearth Surgery: The quest for a stove that can save the world.” The New Yorker magazine. December 21, 2009.

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