The Silent Killer in the Kitchen

Cooking shouldn't kill you -- but in developing countries it does.

For more than 3 billion people, exposure to smoke is an inescapable byproduct of the daily task of preparing a meal over an open fire or a wood-burning stove. World Health Organization research has found that cookstove smoke is responsible for 1.9 million premature deaths annually across Asia, Africa and South America. It's one of the top five health risks in developing countries, predominantly affecting women and children, and contributes to a range of chronic illnesses, including lung cancer, heart disease, pneumonia, and low birth weight. Think about that: A kitchen is literally one of the most dangerous places to be in the developing world.

This week leaders from around the world have convened in New York for the UN General Assembly. They are assessing the progress that has been made toward meeting the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) -- an urgent global "to do list" to combat poverty, disease, and access to education. Also targeted are maternal health, gender equity, child mortality, and environmental sustainability. Each of these MDGs would be easier to reach if more households had cleaner cookstoves and fuels.

Five hundred million households rely on firewood and other biomass for fuel. Apart from the grave health effects, inefficient combustion means much of that wood is wasted -- even as its collection degrades natural resources, accelerates deforestation, and contributes to climate change. What's more, the time-consuming task of gathering wood falls almost exclusively upon women and girls -- time that could be spent on education or generating income. As they forage for fuel away from their villages or refugee camps, women and girls also risk personal attack. If they are forced to buy wood, they have to use precious income that could otherwise go to other urgent needs.

Recent advances in cookstove design, testing, and monitoring, assisted by an injection of business DNA from new commercial players, suggest that the moment has arrived to take clean cookstoves to scale. They are increasingly affordable, last longer, and better meet consumer preferences. The growing need for effective near- and long-term action to address climate change at the local and regional level has also prioritized stoves as a mitigation tool; they are becoming an important component of energy and climate policies in countries across the globe, including the United States. New national cookstove programs are being undertaken in India, Mexico, and Peru.

For these reasons a new partnership was launched with a landmark announcement by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton this week in New York. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves is a bold new initiative to save lives, improve livelihoods, empower women, and combat climate change by creating a thriving global market for clean and efficient household cooking solutions. The Alliance will help overcome the market barriers that currently impede the production, deployment, and use of clean cookstoves in the developing world. The Alliance's '100 by 20' goal calls for 100 million homes to have clean and efficient stoves and fuels by 2020, toward a long-term vision of universal adoption.

Founding Partners of the Alliance include the United Nations Foundation and Morgan Stanley, the Shell Foundation, the State Department and EPA, the German government, the World Health Organization, and several other UN agencies.

This extraordinary coalition has come together around one core belief: The time is right for the world to focus on this issue.

The Alliance needs others to step up. The global community needs to make cookstoves a priority. If it does, progress will be made toward the MDGs, millions of lives will be saved, and the global environment protected.

Cooking shouldn't kill. It shouldn't kill women and children. It shouldn't kill the environment.