Smoke and its impact on people's lives

Adam Hart-Davis sees the scale of the problem

Smoke from cooking in the home causes the deaths of two million people - mainly women and children - every year. Writer and broadcaster Adam Hart-Davis visited Kenya to see the problem for himself, and to raise awareness of one of the biggest killers in the developing world.


Malaria is deadly, but smoke is deadlier still. Smoke from cooking fires kills more than one and a half million people every year; one person every 20 seconds.

To investigate the problem at first hand, I visited a village outside Kisumu near Lake Victoria in Kenya where the houses are made from mud with roofs of corrugated iron. The first I went into was perhaps four metres square, divided in half by a simple partition; on one side a bed; on the other a three-stone fire and a low stool. There was no other furniture, but a bicycle leaned against the wall.

Sixteen-year-old Mary gathered firewood from a pile by the house and built up the fire to cook ugali, a porridge made from maize flour. As she sat by the fire with her one-year-old baby Frances, her eyes streamed in the smoke, and Lydian coughed pitifully. Like millions of other women in the poorest countries around the world, Mary will often spend five or six hours a day in the smoky atmosphere, Frances by her side.

Further south in the Rift Valley, near the town of Magadi, I visited a small Maasai settlement - a dozen mud huts surrounded by a fence of thorn branches to keep out the lions. I squeezed into one hut, perhaps three metres square, and found it was divided into three rooms - a sitting space, a cooking space, and a sleeping space.

The kitchen fire was right in the middle, and the entire house was full of thick choking smoke. There is no chimney, no hole in the roof; the smoke has to trickle out through tiny crevices. I started coughing before I could see in the darkness, but eventually I made out one woman watching while another cooked porridge over the open wood fire. On the bed was a third woman, who had been ill for several days, and must therefore have been inhaling the smoke continuously.

Adam Hart-Davis learns how indoor smoke affects children's health

Smoke from the fire fills the kitchen

The smoke hood in action

Half the world's population don't have gas or electricity and are forced to cook with wood, dung, charcoal or coal. The smoke from burning these fuels turns kitchens in the world's poorest countries into death traps.

Children are particularly susceptible - a million die every year from diseases brought on by inhaling smoke.

Smoke contains tiny particles of soot, which clog and irritate the airways, causing disease, and damage that can be irreversible. Smoke also contains a cocktail of poisonous gases, including aldehydes, benzene, and carbon monoxide, which cause headaches, dizziness, and in extreme cases death. Smoke damages the eyes and leads to premature births.

Practical Action has a team tackling the problem of smoke in several ways. For example it has researched the design of 'smoke-hoods', which are made locally from either galvanized iron or mud. These stand over the cooking fires and channel 75 per cent of the smoke up a metal chimney and high above the corrugated-iron roof.

I met a charming elderly lady who had a smart smoke hood in her house installed with the help of Practical Action, who told me "I used to cough all the time with watering eyes. Now I can sit comfortably by the fire. I am much happier now."

I also visited the home of Grace, who told me that with the smoke-hood her children can use the light of the fire to do their homework in the evening when it's dark, without worrying about the dangerous smoke.

The charity also helps the local Keyo Women's Collective make improved stoves - simple earthenware baskets that confine the firewood in a narrow space and so make it burn more efficiently. The women haul sand and clay from the river bank, pound them together to make a sloppy mix, press it into a mould, and fire it in a kiln. These cheap and simple stoves can cut down the amount of wood needed by 60 per cent, which in turn reduces the smoke.

To help spread the message about the dangers of smoke from cooking fires, Practical Action encourages the formation of theatre groups, who tour the markets, performing songs, dance, and drama.

These simple solutions can only go so far. What is urgently needed is a global action plan similar to that for HIV/AIDS where governments and major donors like the World Bank pledge money and concentrate efforts to tackle the problem.

Practical Action reckons that for $500 million a year - just one per cent of the western aid budget or less than two per cent of the UK's annual spending on cigarettes - millions of lives could be saved.

The biggest challenge is that most people don't realize that indoor smoke from cooking fires is such a problem, even though it is one of the biggest causes of death and disease in the world's poorest countries. Until the world recognises this fact, smoke will remain the killer in the kitchen.

A Kenyan mother explains to Adam Hart-Davis how indoor smoke affects her children's healthAdam Hart-Davis talks to a metal-worker about the production of smoke hoods

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