Indoor air pollution (IAP) from smoky, inefficient stoves affects more than half of the world’s population—about 3 billion people, most in resource-poor countries. IAP (also called household air pollution) causes a wide variety of health problems, many of which are similar to those faced by someone who has smoked cigarettes for a lifetime.
Despite the serious health and environmental effects, 50% of the world’s population and 75% of South Asians continue to burn solid fuels in traditional cookstoves for cooking and heating. Many government and private organizations have attempted to promote the use of cleaner-burning cookstoves, but the use of these nontraditional cookstoves in the developing world has remained disappointingly low. Across rural Bangladesh, 98% of the population continues to cook with biomass in traditional cookstoves, despite years of efforts to promote nontraditional cookstove technologies.
To better understand how to promote the use of cleaner and healthier cookstoves, scientists supported by the Population Dynamics Branch surveyed women in rural Bangladesh and conducted an economic experiment to understand what factors determine households’ decisions to adopt cleaner cookstoves.
The data indicated that many women understood some of the health issues associated with cookstoves, but they considered these issues to be less serious than other common health hazards. Although the vast majority of respondents (94%) believed that indoor smoke was harmful, the majority also believed that smoke was less harmful than polluted water (76%) and spoiled food (66%).
The researchers presented households with more extensive information about the health benefits of cleaner cooking and offered to sell cookstoves at full price and at substantially reduced rates. However, competing demands for limited funds made nontraditional cookstoves that reduced indoor smoke a low priority for households. Because they overwhelmingly relied on a traditional cookstove technology that costs little to nothing, and they had very low incomes, these households were simply not willing to pay much for a new nontraditional cookstove.
Moreover, households made their purchasing decisions based largely on non-health considerations, as well as price. For example, households rated the ability of nontraditional cookstoves to use less fuel as their most valuable characteristic. The next most-valued attributes were reduced cooking time and the ability to accommodate a wider variety of biomass fuels. Only 9% of respondents answered that reducing or eliminating household smoke was what they valued most about nontraditional cookstoves.
The results of this study suggest that neither large discounts nor health education alone is likely to be effective in promoting cleaner cookstoves. Efforts to promote nontraditional cookstoves may be more successful by developing and emphasizing designs with features valued more highly, although these features may be unrelated to cookstoves’ health and environmental impact (PMID: 22689941).