Soot, Smoke, and Stoves

One class of problems common to developing countries are the environmental and health consequences of cooking over an open flame. An essential distinction of the human species is that we tend to prefer cooked and processed foods that allow us to extract the most possible calories in order to feed our enormous brain, a behavior that proved quite useful in the often calorie-scarce ancient world. But all of you who have spent any time camping know that this behavior comes at a cost: large amounts of wood for fuel and clothes filled with the (glorious) smell of a campfire. In most Guatemalan homes, meals are still prepared over an open flame, often indoors and with poor ventilation. This type of indoor cooking is a huge risk factor for developing respiratory diseases such as COPD and is now being recognized as a significant public health problem for these families. Here are a few popular press articles from Newsweek and PBS that address this subject. For those of you that are more science-inclined, you can look at an academic paper on the subject here. 

Wood stacks for cooking are a mainstay of most Guatemalan front yards.

Wood stacks for cooking are a mainstay of most Guatemalan front yards.

We are so excited to tell you all about a project we are undertaking to help address these issues for families that attend the community center.  This fall we are partnering with Engineers Without Borders at the University of Wisconsin to design and produce cooking stoves that: 1) effectively re-direct smoke and pollutants outside the living area, 2) reduce the amount of fuel necessary to prepare food, 3) withstand the grueling toll of daily use, and 4) are cost-efficient to produce and install. The future physician in me is quite excited that such a simple device could lead to better health in these communities, but Guatemalan families will probably be more impressed by prospect of buying/collecting less wood rather than a future reduction in chronic lung disease. The increased fuel efficiency these stoves will provide is a critical part of gaining community buy-in and adoption. 

We could not be more thankful that Tabatha, an engineering student at the University of Wisconsin and Guatemala Program Director for Engineers Without Borders, was so eager to mobilize a team to take on this project. We can’t wait to see the designs their team produces! Here is a message from her about the project: 

This week, Engineers Without Borders UW - Guatemala will be hosting our kickoff meeting to start the semester work on our water project and new cook-stove project! We estimate that more than thirty students will be involved in the stove project design teams this semester, and we plan on having two groups of students create unique improved stove designs. We are so excited to work on this design and partner with Palms and Souls in an effort to engineer a better world and improve the daily lives of the people of Guatemala!