On-the-ground research reveals true impact of cook-stove emissions in India

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By Pratim Biswas

Cookstoves are a central part of millions of homes throughout Asia, including India. Communities in rural areas often use readily available and cheap biofuels — such as crop remnants or dung — to prepare the food they need to survive.

Previously, numerous research groups worldwide have shown smoke emitted from cookstoves have a definite, detrimental environmental impact, particularly in India. They clog the air with particulates that, when inhaled, are dangerous to overall human health. Despite advances in technology, many people are reluctant or unable to adopt the newer, cleaner cookstoves. For several years, a collaborative team from Washington University in St. Louis has studied the issue and potential solutions. Now, new research from our university gives us a clearer picture of the problem’s true scope.

Our findings, recently published in Atmospheric Chemistry and Physics, were derived from actual field studies conducted in India by my colleagues at Washington University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science, as well as those from the Brown School of Social Work.

In December 2015, we spent 20 days running a series of tests in Raipur, a city in central India where more than three-quarters of families use traditional cookstoves to prepare their meals.

We worked with scientists from Pandit Ravi Shankar Shukla University in Raipur and the Indian Institute of Tropical Metrology, as well as with collaborators from the Desert Research Institute in Reno, Nevada. We conducted real-life cookstove tests and burned a wide variety of biofuels, cooked different meals in a number of varying ventilation situations, then recorded the resulting emission levels using high-tech particle measurement devices.

Once the data was crunched back in St. Louis, the results were startling:  In some cases, more than twice the emission levels were detected when compared to the previous lab findings, revising what people thought they knew for decades about this pervasive and dangerous problem.

While further investigation is needed to evaluate the exact effect of cookstove emissions on both climate and health, is important to note that our new findings came only when we shifted the focus out of the lab and into the field.

We hope that by continuing the scope and depth of our global scientific collaborations, boosted by our McDonnell International Scholars Academy partners and illustrated by Washington University’s recent Forum for India held in New Delhi December 15, we can continue to make progress and work toward solutions for some of the world’s most vexing problems, including improving air quality and reducing particulate matter in our atmosphere so we can all breathe easier.

(About the Author: Pratim Biswas is an assistant Vice Chancellor and Chair of the Energy, Environmental & Chemicam Engineering Department at Washington University’s School of Engineering & Applied Science. He is also the the Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor.)

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