A woman hovers over a crude stove, making the dinner that will sustain her family. As she does so, she may be killing herself.
She’s not alone—not by a long shot. She’s one of hundreds of millions of Indian women who feed the flames of their indoor cook stoves with kerosene or hand-packed cow dung patties. Those fuels produce acrid smoke filled with tiny, carcinogenic particles known as black carbon.
The number of deaths related to black carbon is high: Approximately 4.3 million people die each year from its effects. With more than a billion people, India contributes a significant amount of black carbon pollutants to the atmosphere. Much of it wafts up from individual homes. When the emissions from all the tiny stoves add up, the result comes close to catastrophic. In addition to affecting those working directly with the stoves, black carbon collects in the atmosphere. It blocks sunlight. That reduces crop yields in polluted areas. Black carbon also darkens Arctic glaciers so that they absorb heat from the sun more readily and begin to melt.
Though black carbon is a known pollutant associated with serious health problems, it is largely unregulated. Approximately 2.8 billion people worldwide still use firewood, cow dung, or kerosene to make their daily meals. That’s more than a third of the world’s population.
Accurately measuring the effects of so many small, private sources has been close to impossible. But that may be about to change. A team of scientists, health experts, and economists with The Gold Standard Foundation has developed a way to calculate black carbon emissions from various cooking fuels. Understanding its impact may be the first step toward addressing the problem.
Veerabhadran Ramanathan is a scientist at the University of California, San Diego. He also directs a charity aimed at providing clean, efficient stoves to the world’s poor. The information The Gold Standard Foundation is gathering may help him in his work. He is seeking grants and donations to fill the need for cleaner cookers, like those used in developed countries. "Financing less polluting cook stoves is one of the few win-win options for the planet," Ramanathan says.
Unlike carbon dioxide, which lingers in the atmosphere for many decades, black carbon has a short lifespan. Reducing its production will rapidly help to clear the air. And that could mean a better environment for everyone and longer, healthier lives for many millions of individuals.