Since humans first discovered fire and used it to cook and heat their dwellings, they’ve been exposed to particle-filled smoke and have suffered resulting respiratory and other health illnesses. In less-developed countries, open-fire cooking inside homes today presents a significant health hazard to at least half the world’s population. A group of undergraduate students at Colorado State University are researching the impact of cleaner-burning cookstoves on the health of those who have cooked over open fires and makeshift stoves.
"The exposure to particles and other pollutants from open fires used in kitchens can reach massive levels for women and children – about the equivalent of smoking two packs of cigarettes a day," said Erin McGuinn, one of six Colorado State University undergraduate students who worked in Nicaragua this past summer on a cookstove project. McGuinn and two other students are from the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences, the home department for the project. "More than 1.6 million deaths each year are due to indoor pollution from cookstoves."
Although new cookstoves have been installed in homes across Nicaragua and other countries by nonprofit groups, few long-term studies have been done to see how the stoves are used, if they are maintained and if health improves over time. Cleaner cookstoves may be a potential cure for serious respiratory and other issues caused by open-fire cooking, but follow-up research is needed to confirm how much those stoves can impact a family’s health.
The students are studying 125 families in El Fortin, a poor neighborhood outside of Granada, Nicaragua, to determine the positive health impacts of improved stoves installed in their homes. The students traveled to Nicaragua last summer while 12500 stoves, supplied by the nonprofit organization Trees Water People, were installed in homes. The group of Colorado State students gathered baseline data on the health of the women cooking in the homes obtaining a new stove. The group took health surveys, and used home and personal air-quality monitors, lung function tests, blood pressure and blood collection results to get the data. It will be compared against data from the same homes in the coming years.
Other student groups will travel to Nicaragua during the next several years to test the health effects of new stoves on the women cooking in an environment with reduced indoor air pollution over time. This reduction could possibly reduce respiratory and other illnesses due to indoor air pollution and lack of access to inexpensive life-saving medications.
"People die every day in the developing world from health problems associated with poverty," said McGuinn, who hopes to attend medical school. "In this village, kitchens were typically made of wood and tin. The women used open fires in the kitchen with little or no ventilation, so you can imagine that walking into a kitchen sometimes stopped you dead in your tracks because the smoke was so thick that you could barely breathe. The walls and ceilings are completely black with soot."
Some of the women cooked for up to six hours a day to feed their large families. The average cooking time was four hours per day. Many also allowed fires to smolder all day because it was too time consuming and expensive to relight them during the rainy season. Because the price of gas has skyrocketed, they stopped using it to light their fires and instead used plastic, which emits numerous carcinogenic compounds – as does burning wood.
In addition to being responsible for cooking, the women also worked and watched younger children who, as a necessity, had to stay near the fires where the women could keep an eye on them. McGuinn said it was common to see women cooking with their children by their side in the kitchen.
"I think that with the Nicaragua project, we can do something that will make a visible change in people’s lives, and we are really excited to have this opportunity," McGuinn said. "Our team had the desire to make a positive change in the lives of an underserved population, something that would cause an increase in the overall quality of life of a large subset of a community."
Together, along with the department, the group raised $60,000 to cover equipment, staff and travel expenses. The group split the expenses to install the stoves – $10,000 – with Trees Water People and private donors. In addition to private donations, the project has received funding from multiple sources including the College of Veterinary Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, which houses the Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences department; the university’s Office of International Programs; the Colorado Environmental Health Association; CSU’s Student Leadership, Involvement and Community Engagement office; and Trees Water People.
Thomas Hraha, an environmental health undergraduate student who graduated last summer, developed the project idea. Additional students who traveled to Nicaragua are undergraduates Alisa Tonozzi, Leslie Marchand, Matt Bruno and Danielle Wagner. Faculty and staff members from the Department of Environmental and Radiological Health Sciences helping the students are Jennifer Peel, Maggie Clark, Steve Reynolds, John Volckens, David Gilkey, Erin Reichert and Kenneth Blehm. Former department employee Judy Heiderscheidt and her husband, Bill Marquardt, also assisted.
To donate to the project, contact the CSU Foundation at (970) 491-7135 or donate via a secure website at https://advancing.colostate.edu/cvmbs/erhs/give. Go to step 1 "Gift Information," click on additional designations, and enter "ERHS Nicaragua Cook Stove Project."