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Global Campaign Targets Hidden Dangers of Dirty Cookstoves

For most people around the world, sitting around a hot stove, waiting for a delicious meal is a highlight of the day. But in places without reliable electricity, people are exposed to dangerous levels of smoke that, over time, have devastating consequences.

This week in New York, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton announced the founding of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, a public-private partnership set up to encourage the production and use of more efficient stoves.

"As we meet here in New York, women are cooking dinner for their families in homes and villages around the world," Clinton said. "As many as three billion people are gathering around open fires or old and inefficient stoves in small kitchens and poorly ventilated houses."

She also pointed out that inefficient stoves that burn coal, wood or other fuel can produce enormous amounts of airborne toxins that slowly poison entire families.

"The results of daily exposure can be devastating. Pneumonia, the number one killer of children worldwide, chronic respiratory diseases, lung cancer and a range of other health problems are the consequence," said Clinton.

There have been efforts in the past to distribute cleaner, more efficient stoves to communities suffering from respiratory problems. But those attempts largely failed, mainly because cooks can be picky about their stoves, said Leslie Cordes, Senior Director for Partnership Development for the U.N Foundation, which is part of the Global Alliance.

"Often those efforts did not take into account local conditions, local preferences, regional cooking preferences or styles and other very important factors that determine whether the stoves are actually used, "Cordes said. "Somebody who is cooking tortillas in Mexico or Guatemala is not going to find acceptable a stove that has been developed for a Cambodian market that cooks rice."

To solve the problem of regional preferences in stove design, Cordes said the alliance will not be handing out stoves. Rather it will encourage private industry to create inexpensive appliances for the local market.

"What we're trying to do is to help create that thriving market condition for the development and adoption of clean cook stoves," she said. "We're looking at the development of innovative financing schemes for promoting theses stoves and making them more affordable. We're looking at awareness campaigns and consumer outreach."

The goal is to have the safer stoves in 100 million homes by 2020. Cordes said attaining that goal would have a dramatic effect on life expectancies around the world.

"The World Health Organization estimates that half of all deaths from pneumonia in children under five could be prevented with the use of clean stoves. In some areas, some women breathe about the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes a day from that smoke."

Contributors to the alliance include private foundations, the World Health Organization and two United Nations agencies. Several agencies of the U.S government are also taking part in the program as are the governments of Germany, Norway and the Netherlands.