Friendly fire?

Friendly fire?

When thinking of the challenges found in developing countries, unsanitary drinking water, malnutrition and HIV/Aids are probably top of mind – but there is another culprit which claims millions of lives per year … which has its own South African public holiday!

The perpetrator in question? The braai, Shisanyama, barbeque, barbie or cookout (whatever tickles your colloquial fancy) – in short, cooking over an open flame. Arguably a national pastime in sunny South Africa …

Heritage Day (celebrated on September 24, where South Africans across the spectrum are encouraged to celebrate their culture, the diversity of their beliefs and traditions) is informally referred to as National Braai Day in light of our country’s culinary tradition of hosting informal backyard braais.

This practice isn’t monopolised by South Africa, however, or only used for recreational purposes as, according to the World Health Organisation (WHO), around three billion people, in low- and middle-income countries, still cook and heat their homes using solid fuels (such as wood, crop waste, charcoal, coal and dung) in open fires and leaky stoves.

“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,” states the United Nations’ public health arm. “In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for small particles.”

Exposure to these cooking emissions ranks as one of the five worst overall health risk factors in poor, developing countries, with the WHO estimating that there are 4,3 million premature deaths per year resulting from exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves. It adds that exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth.

“We’re hoping to figure out how to reduce the exposure of women and children to air pollutants in sub-Saharan Africa through technology and getting people to think about changes to their behaviour,” says Mike Hannigan, associate professor of mechanical and environmental engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder (CU-Bolder) – a public research university in the United States.

Hannigan is the principal investigator on a US$ 1,5 million (R16,14 million) grant, from the Environmental Protection Agency, to measure and model air quality and climactic impacts of residential biomass and coal combustion for cooking in West Africa.

“This problem is bigger than malnutrition, and it’s a social justice issue because it’s happening disproportionately in the developing world and is particularly harmful to women and children,” he points out.

Christine Wiedinmyer, a principal investigator on the project and a scientist at the National Centre for Atmospheric Research, adds: “You can see the impacts from cooking over open fires on air quality, as there is often a haze hanging over remote villages during certain times of day. This not only affects health, but can cause poor air quality regionally and impact the climate too.”

Over the next three years, Hannigan, Vanja Dukic (Professor of Applied Mathematics at CU-Boulder) , along with researchers at NCAR, will study 250 households in northern Ghana to measure the levels of pollutants that adults and children are exposed to from cooking, as well as from burning trash and car pollution.

“We are looking at what effects modern cookstoves could have on the quality of indoor air and exposure to pollutants,” says Hannigan. “We’re also trying to understand to what extent cooking contributes to the outdoor pollution in cities.”

Some of the households in the study (which began June 1), have been given high-tech cookstoves manufactured in Lesotho, while others received less-costly cookstoves, manufactured locally in Ghana. A third group will continue the traditional method of cooking over a three-stone fire on the ground. While all participants will cook with biomass or charcoal fuels typical to the area, Hannigan says the newer cookstove technology burns these fuels more cleanly than an open fire.

In addition to using small, inexpensive sensors to measure levels of harmful pollutants (such as carbon dioxide), in the homes, the study includes climate modelling, which will consider the effect that increased cookstove use could have on regional air quality and the climate. The participants’ health and behaviour will be assessed through surveys.

“If we give them a stove, will they use it? And what drives them in their choice of a stove?” asks Hannigan, noting that a low-emission cookstove costs the equivalent of a month’s salary for a Ghanian household. “Cost is a big deal, so we’re trying to understand cooking behaviour and choice along with the emissions questions.”

A strong partnership with the Navrongo Health Research Centre, a local governmental organisation, which has been conducting public health surveys of the same households for 15 years, is collaborating with the researchers to help them to gain access and trust in the Ghanaian community.

Knowledge is definitely power … and this study could improve the lives of millions as it deciphers the dangers of indoor open-fire cooking and what can be done to curb it, restoring the braai to its pleasurable glory.

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