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Smoking Gun: When Cooking Can Kill

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AFP/Getty Images
AFP/Getty Images

As one worker pounds away at a sheet of thin metal, bending it into shape, a woman nearby dips a large brush into a can of brown paint and slaps it onto a canister in swift, even strokes.

In a building next door, another employee molds clay into the same circular shape on a pottery wheel while a colleague pokes holes into the bottom of dozens of pots before they dry.

This is a workshop on the outskirts of Tanzania's commercial capital, Dar es Salaam. The product: stoves that emit significantly less smoke than traditional open-fire methods of cooking.

According to the World Health Organization, indoor air pollution from cooking and heating homes causes nearly two million premature deaths each year. That's more than tuberculosis and three times as many as malaria.

It's easy to see why it's so damaging. A woman perches on a small stool or tree stump, leans in and puts all her weight into mashing and stirring that day's meal for her family. Smoke from the fire billows into her face and fills her lungs as she struggles for breath.

She, and members of her family, particularly children playing nearby or called upon to take their turn stirring, often develop respiratory problems, pneumonia and lung disease.

To address the issue, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves hopes that 100 million homes will be using efficient stoves by 2020.

Along with its partners, the Alliance is promoting the local manufacture and distribution of efficient stoves in developing countries around the world.

It's a tall order, but the health benefits, along with the environmental relief of burning less wood and charcoal, could be enormous.

"It's one relatively simple intervention that has a multitude of impacts," says Radha Muthiah, the Alliance's Executive Director.

But with high profile diseases like HIV/AIDS, tuberculosis and malaria garnering much of the attention in developing countries, the greatest challenge is to get smoke inhalation off the back-burner as a public health risk.

GHFN's Managing Editor David Lindsay and videographer Roger Herr went to Tanzania to report on clean cookstoves and women living with fistulas.