Opinion

Killer In The Kitchen

The kitchen is a special place mainly because it is used for the preparation of one of life’s important things, food, which everybody needs to grow and develop physically.

It is the place most women and men spend a large amount of their time ensuring their loved ones and the public have a good meal for the day.

The kitchen, however, does not stand on its own. It consists of different appliances and elements that help in satisfying this important need of humans.

One such element is heat. Heat is an indispensible element needed to change raw foodstuffs and ingredients into the different kinds of meals enjoyed by all.

Whether preparing a starter, main dish and its accompaniments or deserts, heat plays an important role. As a result, various sources of heat—firewood, charcoal, Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) and electric stove—are often employed in food preparation.

Getting the source of heat, nonetheless, does not come easily. Some people have to go in search of firewood, sometimes walking long distances, especially women in the villages, while others access their sources of heat readily upon request, especially in the case of LPG.

On the other hand, a large number of people, majority of who fall within the lower middle income class, tend to use the most affordable and reliable source of heat—charcoal and coal pot—in cooking.

The charcoal is relatively cheap and reliable and can be used both indoor and outdoor.

But this important element used in the preparation of food also produces dangerous substances which, when inhaled over time, cause respiratory diseases and claims over 3.5 million lives annually worldwide.

Inhaling smoke produced by solid fuels like charcoal when cooking with open fires does not only pollute the air in the house, it also gradually destroys important organs in the body.

‘I went to see the doctor and he asked me if I have been smoking but I told him ‘no’. He said my lungs look like someone who is a smoker,’ Amina Yahaya (pseudonym) said.

Forty-five-year-old Amina, who lives with her husband and three children in a compound house at Amasaman, the capital of the Ga West District of the Greater Accra Region, was diagnosed with lung cancer early this year.

‘I have been cooking using coal pot and charcoal for a long time and I inhale the smoke when I am cooking. I don’t know, but I have never smoked cigarettes,’ she said.

The impact of indoor air pollution is often ignored or unknown, even though it has dire consequences on those who inhale the polluted air, like Amina.

Global Health Impact

According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around three billion people cook and heat their homes using open fires and simple stoves burning biomass—wood, animal dung and crop waste—and coal.

A woman preparing food in her kitchen as she inhales the smoke from the charcoal she is using

Such inefficient cooking fuels and technologies produce high levels of household air pollution with a range of health-damaging pollutants, including small soot particles that penetrate deep into the lungs.

In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for small particles.

Exposure is particularly high among women and young children who spend the most time near the domestic hearth.

The particulate matter and other pollutants in indoor smoke inflame the airways and lungs, impairing immune response and reducing the oxygen-carrying capacity of blood.

There is also evidence of links between household air pollution and low birth weight, tuberculosis, cataract, nasopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers.

WHO data shows that over four million people die prematurely from illness attributable to household air pollution from cooking with solid fuels.

Nicholas S. A Manu showing the cookmate
Over one-third of premature deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) in adults in low and middle income countries are due to exposure to household air pollution.

‘Women exposed to high levels of indoor smoke are 2.3 times more likely to suffer from COPD than women who use cleaner fuels.

‘More than 50% of premature deaths among children under five are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter (soot) inhaled from household air pollution,’ the health organisation added.

It further explained that exposure to household air pollution almost doubles the risk for childhood pneumonia.
It indicated that 3.8 million premature deaths annually from non-communicable diseases including stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer are attributed to exposure to household air pollution.

Approximately 15% of all deaths due to ischaemic heart disease, accounting for over a million premature deaths annually, can be attributed to exposure to household air pollution.

Seventeen percent of annual premature lung cancer deaths in adults are attributable to exposure to carcinogens from household air pollution caused by cooking with solid fuels like wood, charcoal or coal.

‘The risk for women is higher due to their role in food preparation,’ WHO’s data stressed.

Also, about a quarter of all premature deaths due to stroke (i.e. about 1.4 million deaths, of which half are in women) can be attributed to the chronic exposure to household air pollution caused by cooking with solid fuels.

Mortality from ischaemic heart disease and stroke are nonetheless also affected by risk factors such as high blood pressure, unhealthy diet, lack of physical activity and smoking.

Some other risks for childhood pneumonia include suboptimal breastfeeding, underweight and second-hand smoke. For lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, active smoking and second-hand tobacco smoke are also main risk factors.

Ghana is no exception as close to two million people die each year from smoke from solid fuels.

Interventions
The World Bank in 2010 cautioned that without a substantial change in policy, the total number of people relying on solid fuels would remain largely unchanged by 2030.

Consequently, governments and independent organisations have sought to change the trend of the use of solid fuels for cooking.

One such organisation is the Cookclean Ghana Limited, an advocacy organisation for green environment and producers of improved cooking stove which promotes complete combustion of charcoal.

The stove is developed using an aluminium conical combustion chamber shape with holes beneath a pot skirt, on which the cooking pot will be placed, and an air space and regulator.

Nicholas S.A. Manu, Chief Executive Officer of Cookclean, said the cook mate burns charcoal sparingly and efficiently as compared to the coal pot.

‘We started producing the improved cook stove three years ago in four sizes. We did this because we want to reduce indoor pollution and improve the lives of the users,’ he said.

Mr Manu said the stove helps to save money and reduces pressure on the household budget because of its charcoal consumption level.

‘A family in Ghana, for example, saves over three tonnes of wood a year and saves an average of GH¢15. 00 monthly in cooking energy bill,’ he added.

The company is also producing renewable green fuel briquette from saw dust and agricultural waste products to mitigate methane emission and simultaneously displacing non-renewable biomass fuel for cooking.

Mr Manu said the most effective means of reducing indoor air pollution is to switch to cleaner fuel that produces significantly lower emissions.

He said 30 percent of the country’s population use charcoal to cook, with 47 of the inhabitants of Accra using coal pots to cook daily.

The Cookclean CEO said until majority of these people change to improved ways of cooking, like switching to LPG gas, improved cook stoves can be used as an option for many people.

He said the cook stove is a better alternative due to high costs, lack of access to fuel and other barriers, adding that but for those who are able the switch fuels, the benefits are great.

The Ghana Action Plan for Clean Cooking, a document by the Energy Commission and the Global Alliance for Clean Cook Stoves, indicates that the country is well poised to move from improved efficiency cook stoves to clean cook stoves and from a relatively small percentage of the potential cook stove market to a larger proportion in the next few years.

It however points to several things that must be done to position the country for success, including an active in-country cook stove market with consumers who are ready for but have not yet been reached with improved cook stove initiatives.

It also calls for an entrepreneurial local cook stove production base, concerted government efforts at reducing citizens’ dependency on solid fuels and moving towards cleaner fuels such as LPG, with the goal of transitioning at least 50% of the population to using LPG as their primary cooking fuel by 2015.

‘There are also several related factors which stand to assist Ghana in moving towards clean cooking solutions, such as the government’s focus on rectifying the effects of deforestation caused in part by the use of inefficient cook stoves,’ it stated.

With the support of the Ghanaian government, the interest of major international organisations, as well as the presence of a strong manufacturing base and easily reachable consumer segments, Ghana could easily achieve rapid growth in its efforts to ensure universal adoption of clean and efficient cook stoves throughout the country and be a leader in household energy access across Africa.

By Jamila Akweley Okertchiri

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