A mother in rural India uses a mud stove fueled by firewood to cook dinner for her 4-year-old son in their small, poorly ventilated home. Smoke billows into the air and inflames the lungs of the child, who develops a severe case of pneumonia and dies.
Scenarios like this routinely play out in poor countries that lack access to cookstoves powered by smoke-free fuels. The World Health Organization reports that 3 billion people cook with dirty fuels such as wood, coal, and animal dung, which produce smoke that kills nearly 4 million people each year from pneumonia, stroke, lung cancer, and more. The fuels, known as chula in India, release black carbon into the atmosphere, which can speed the melting of glaciers and block sunlight from reaching the Earth.
“Imagine being in a small kitchen where exposure to these toxic gases are 50 to 100 times the air pollution levels recommended by the World Health Organization,” says Praveen Kumar, an assistant professor of global practice in the Boston College School of Social Work.
Kumar, who studies how the use of energy affects the health and well-being of people in South Asia and Sub-Saharan Africa, is on a quest to help these regions adopt the use of fuels that are simultaneously less toxic to humans and the environment. He advocates the use of cookstoves powered by liquefied petroleum gas—a smoke-free fuel that releases fewer pollutants than any other fuel except for electricity.
“My research findings could help us understand what behavioral factors motivate community members to take up clean energy and demand better, more inclusive environmental policies in their countries and communities,” says Kumar, whose ongoing studies in India and Rwanda are funded by the National Institutes of Health. “Sustained adoption of clean cooking technologies will be limited if we do not provide them with technologies in congruence with their needs.”
Kumar has found that people who have developed strong social ties to their communities are more likely to adopt clean cooking technology. He says that people in rural India and Rwanda are most likely to abandon simple stoves in favor of LPG stoves when opinion leaders in their communities impart the pernicious effects of household air pollution. They also tend to stick with LPG stoves when local shops and distribution agencies are available nearby to fix their stoves or replace their fuel tanks for a small fee.
“Households have been able to sustainably use liquefied petroleum gas stoves at far higher levels when affordability, accessibility, and awareness are working in tandem,” says Kumar, who has studied the adoption of LPG stoves in collaboration with Gautam N. Yadama, dean of the School of Social Work. “If these clean cookstoves fail or break, communities want to have help fixing them. But if they don’t have a supportive environment, there’s a high likelihood that they’ll just go back to using traditional stoves.”
“Households have been able to sustainably use liquefied petroleum gas stoves at far higher levels when affordability, accessibility, and awareness are working in tandem. If these clean cookstoves fail or break, communities want to have help fixing them. But if they don’t have a supportive environment, there’s a high likelihood that they’ll just go back to using traditional stoves.”
Kumar has installed sensors on simple stoves and LPG stoves in India to monitor their use. The sensors record the temperature of the stoves to track hours of use and then transmit the data to the researchers in real time.
Kumar analyzed more than two years of data and found that households that have both kinds of stoves are still using simple stoves approximately 65 percent of the time.
“That’s not that great because there needs to be a substantial reduction in exposure to air pollution for there to be health benefits,” Kumar says. “This means that you need to completely abandon traditional stoves and exclusively use clean cookstoves to get health benefits.”
Kumar plans to return to India in March and May to collect more data and interview villagers who have been using LPG stoves. His research aligns with two goals set by the United Nations to ensure peace and prosperity for people and the planet: Goal 7, to provide everyone with access to clean and affordable energy, and Goal 13, to take urgent action to combat climate change.
“These studies can never be done by comfortably sitting in our offices,” Kumar says. “I like being in these communities, which gives me a more accurate sense of the real issue at hand. That is why I always encourage my students to participate in studies where they could get opportunities to travel to the fields and collect primary data themselves.”
Kumar routinely meets with community members to improve their awareness of the health implications of cooking with dirty fuels. He uses simple language to communicate the dangers posed by inhaling household air pollution.
Kumar also recruits opinion leaders of these communities to share the harmful effects of simple stoves with their neighbors. He says that community members trust opinion leaders and often follow their lead.
“If you or I go and talk to community members about these issues, they will listen and soak it in,” Kumar says. “But if an opinion leader goes and talks to families, the likelihood that they will soak in the information and change their behavior is higher because they will feel that this person is one of them.”
Kumar says that his ultimate goal is to ensure that everyone in the world has access to cooking technology that keeps humans and the environment safe. He believes that this goal could be reached if people who live in poor, rural communities are granted the ability to help design future environmental policies.
“Most energy and environmental policies are developed by so-called highly qualified people, but these policies often lack voices from the ground,” Kumar says. “If I had my way, I would create a strategy so the unheard voices from these poor, vulnerable communities could be heard when we plan and implement such policies.”