Call for clean-cooking solutions

Counties Editor's Pick Environment Taita Taveta

For most rural homesteads in Kenya, firewood is an indispensable part of their everyday lives. Kirumbi village in the lower Sagalla area of Voi sub-county is no exception.  Women in this marginalized and poverty-stricken arid village regard the thick bush around their homes as nature’s veritable gift that has been a source of free firewood for decades.

“We get firewood and charcoal from the bush. It has served us for a long time,” says Ms. Rael Mkala, a mother of two from Kirumbi village. The contentment in her voice is hard to miss.

However, there lurks a chillingly dark side underneath this benevolent bush that might be pushing unsuspecting residents into early graves. Decades of continuous use of firewood and other forms of biomass fuel in poorly ventilated households is having adverse effects on health particularly for mothers and children aged below five. This situation is attributed to high levels of pollution inside their houses; a scenario that has compromised the Indoor Air Quality and thereby exposing family members to various health complications.

A scientific study done in the villages of Sagalla in Taita-Taveta County and Namanga in Kajiado by the Renewable Energy Directorate in the Ministry of Energy in collaboration with the Department of Chemistry at the University of Nairobi, showed extremely high levels of carbon monoxide pollution in the air of the sampled households.

The ‘Household Energy and Indoor Air Quality Baseline Study’ was conducted in both Sagalla and Namanga to allow for comprehensive comparative analysis because the two areas have the qualities needed to represent a typical rural village setup in Kenya.

Done between April and May in 2019, the findings were released in late October 2022 and disseminated to the residents of Sagalla to create public awareness on pollution levels in households.

The research sampled 52 and 51 households in Sagalla and Namanga respectively. The three broad objectives included establishing the dangers of emissions from cooking stoves at household levels, finding out the impacts on health for women and children aged below five years and comparing the performances between the traditional three-stone stoves and improved stoves.

This study was informed by earlier reports on deteriorating air quality for most poor rural households in Kenya as a result of inefficient use of biomass while cooking and heating homes. This is especially the case for households that use traditional three-stone stoves; notorious for emitting products of incomplete combustions. The study established that 81 per cent of households in Sagalla and 86 per cent in Namanga used the energy-inefficient three-stone stoves.

On harmful emissions, the study focused on Carbon Monoxide (CO), Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and Particulate matter in households. Particulate matter refers to the solid and liquid particles suspended in the air. All three are products of incomplete combustion and are considered extremely hazardous to human health.

The research established that Carbon Monoxide (CO) concentration in households in both Sagalla and Namanga were extremely high; way above the permissible World Health Organization (WHO) which places acceptable CO levels at 6 ppm (parts per million).

In Sagalla, households using firewood and kerosene stoves registered CO concentration of 77 ppm over a period of 24-hour while Namanga households using firewood and charcoal registered CO concentration of staggering 95 ppm within the same time.

This shockingly high level of carbon monoxide, a deadly gas, was attributed to poor ventilation of houses. Family members subjected to a continuous exposure to this level of pollution risk having severe respiratory ailments and eye infections.

“The level of CO is so high that it implies negligence on the part of concerned authorities,” notes part of the study.

The study further established that Carbon Dioxide (CO2) concentration in households in both research areas were within the WHO acceptable levels of 1000 ppm. However, the research found out that particulate matter in Sagalla and Namanga households were at 100 micrograms per every cubic meter of indoor air. This is five times the permissible levels of 20 micrograms per cubic meter by WHO.

The study warns that household members are exposed to extremely high concentrations of particulate matter that pose a big risk to their health.

The study established that the exposure to the pollutants and smoke had adverse effects on health for mothers and children aged below five. Children in both zones suffered from several health complications including persistent coughing, breathing difficulties, ear discharge, eye problems, headaches and burns. The children were normally present when cooking was taking place.

The study also reported 68 and 51 per cent of women in Sagalla and Namanga respectively suffered from coughing fits at the onset of cold season. This was attributed to using firewood with high moisture content that produced a lot of smoke.

The Ministry of Energy intends to use the study to promote clean cooking technology as a way of reducing Greenhouse Gases (GHG) and control biomass harvesting for wood fuel.

The study proposes urgent intervention by public health officials to educate the community on dangers of carbon monoxide and other pollutants, improvement on ventilation for homes as well as using dry firewood. There was a further proposal to conduct a research on the low uptake of improved stoves in rural households.

Data from the ministry shows that nearly 70 per cent of Kenyans rely on traditional biomass fuels with firewood leading at 64.9 per cent. This is followed by Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) at 18.9 per cent, Charcoal at 10.3 per cent and Kerosene at 5.6 per cent. Most households in Kenya use multiple fuels and technologies for cooking.

Voi Sub-County Public Health Officer John Mwangeka says the public needs sensitization on pollution and living in a clean domestic environment. He adds that the issue of indoor air pollution was as a result of convergence of many factors including poverty, ignorance and lack of resources.

“Most of the families have cases of Upper Respiratory Tract Infection as a result of inhaling polluted air in their houses. There is a need to collaborate and conduct proper sensitization for the rural households,” he said.

The government intends to transit 50 per cent of households using three-stones into embracing improved cook stoves that are more energy efficient and have little pollution.  The overall target is to have the whole county adopt clean cooking solutions by 2028.

By Wagema Mwangi

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