Environmental Protection

New Study to Determine the Air Quality Effects of Open Fire Cooking

The National Center for Atmospheric Research is launching a three-year, international study to determine the impact open-fire cooking has on regional air quality and disease.

The study will break new ground by bringing together atmospheric scientists, engineers, statisticians, and social scientists who will analyze the effects of smoke from traditional cooking methods on households, villages, and entire regions. Researchers will combine newly developed sensors with computer and statistical models to look at what happens to human health when traditional cooking methods are used. They will also evaluate whether newer, more efficient cooking stoves could reduce disease and positively affect regional air quality.

The project brings together a diverse team of pollution, climate, and health experts from NCAR, the University of Colorado Boulder, University of Ghana School of Public Health, and Ghana Health Services. The researchers will focus primarily on northern Ghana, where they will examine possible links between air pollutants and diseases. Their findings are expected to provide information to policymakers and health officials in other developing countries where open-fire cooking or inefficient stoves are common.

“Often when you visit remote villages in Ghana, they’re shrouded in haze for many miles from all the fires used for cooking,” says NCAR scientist Christine Wiedinmyer, an atmospheric chemist overseeing the project. “Given that an estimated three billion people worldwide are cooking over fire and smoke, we need to better understand how these pollutants are affecting public health as well as regional air quality and even the climate.”

Cooking fires in developing countries are a leading source of carbon monoxide, particulates, and smog. These can cause a variety of symptoms, ranging from relatively mild ailments, such as headaches, to potentially life-threatening conditions, including cardiovascular and respiratory diseases. The fires also emit carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping gases that can affect weather patterns and warm the climate. As regional temperatures warm, that can increase the level of air pollution, which can potentially lead to greater health risks.

Wiedinmyer and her colleagues will use a combination of local and regional air quality measurements and cutting-edge computer models of weather, air quality, and climate. The researchers and student assistants will also survey villagers to get their views on possible connections between open-fire cooking and disease as well as their interest in adopting different cooking methods.

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