Story

When Cooking Kills

Smoke in San Antonio

Some three billion people around the world cook their food and heat their homes with open or barely contained fires. Here, a woman stands near her household cooking fire in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Some three billion people around the world cook their food and heat their homes with open or barely contained fires. Here, a woman stands near her household cooking fire in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Eugenia Orozco

Writer Michelle Nijhuis talks with Eugenia Velásquez Orozco, who remembers when her household adjusted from an open fire to a chimney stove. Now her granddaughter-in-law, a new mother, is learning to use a gas stove. “Give me another five years,” Orozco says with a grin, “and maybe I’ll get used to that, too.” Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Writer Michelle Nijhuis talks with Eugenia Velásquez Orozco, who remembers when her household adjusted from an open fire to a chimney stove. Now her granddaughter-in-law, a new mother, is learning to use a gas stove. “Give me another five years,” Orozco says with a grin, “and maybe I’ll get used to that, too.” Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Eugenio Sajpop

Eugenio Sajpop, 73, hiked more than two miles into the mountains and spent the entire day cutting to collect two bundles of firewood—one of which he'll have to fetch the next morning. On his way home, he passes a store that sells efficient cookstoves. Photo by Lynn Johnson.  Guatemala, 2017.

Eugenio Sajpop, 73, hiked more than two miles into the mountains and spent the entire day cutting to collect two bundles of firewood—one of which he'll have to fetch the next morning. On his way home, he passes a store that sells efficient cookstoves. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

EcoComal sale

Representatives of the EcoComal stove company sell their efficient cookstoves on market day in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala. For a stove to be fully accepted by a household, both stove and fuel must be affordable, accessible, and easy to use—goals that aren’t easy to achieve simultaneously. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Representatives of the EcoComal stove company sell their efficient cookstoves on market day in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala. For a stove to be fully accepted by a household, both stove and fuel must be affordable, accessible, and easy to use—goals that aren’t easy to achieve simultaneously. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

New Stove in Las Brisas

In Las Brisas, Guatemala, a woman stands proudly next to her efficient cookstove, which was donated to her by the aid group Stove Team International. In the developing world, health problems from household smoke inhalation are a significant cause of death in both children under five and women. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

In Las Brisas, Guatemala, a woman stands proudly next to her efficient cookstove, which was donated to her by the aid group Stove Team International. In the developing world, health problems from household smoke inhalation are a significant cause of death in both children under five and women. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

San Ramon

The typical open cooking fire produces about 400 cigarettes’ worth of smoke an hour, and prolonged exposure is associated with respiratory infections, eye damage, heart and lung disease, and lung cancer. Here, a mother and her four children squint in the smoke of their household fire in San Ramon, Guatemala. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017. Guatemala, 2017.

The typical open cooking fire produces about 400 cigarettes’ worth of smoke an hour, and prolonged exposure is associated with respiratory infections, eye damage, heart and lung disease, and lung cancer. Here, a mother and her four children squint in the smoke of their household fire in San Ramon, Guatemala. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Yeni Contreras

In Las Brisas, Guatemala, Yeni Contreras, 24, holds her four-month-old daughter Heidi. When she received an efficient wood-burning stove from the aid group Stove Team International, she carried it to her kitchen herself, piece by piece. She loves the stove, but, like many of her neighbors, she is afraid to cut a hole in the roof for the chimney, fearing the chimney will be damaged during the rainy season. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

In Las Brisas, Guatemala, Yeni Contreras, 24, holds her four-month-old daughter Heidi. When she received an efficient wood-burning stove from the aid group Stove Team International, she carried it to her kitchen herself, piece by piece. She loves the stove, but, like many of her neighbors, she is afraid to cut a hole in the roof for the chimney, fearing the chimney will be damaged during the rainy season. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Lopez Lopez

Augustina Lopez Lopez and her daughter, Jessica Roxana Lopez Lopez, of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala, recently received an efficient wood-burning stove from the aid group Stove Team International. The air in the kitchen where Augustina weaves is less smoky now, but on some days her eyes are still badly irritated. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Augustina Lopez Lopez and her daughter, Jessica Roxana Lopez Lopez, of San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala, recently received an efficient wood-burning stove from the aid group Stove Team International. The air in the kitchen where Augustina weaves is less smoky now, but on some days her eyes are still badly irritated. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Woodpile in Las Brisas

Firewood is stacked outside a classroom in Las Brisas, Guatemala. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Firewood is stacked outside a classroom in Las Brisas, Guatemala. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Maria Garcia Cruz

Maria García Cruz grew up with a gas stove in rural Guatemala, but she and her husband, Venancio Juárez, can't afford one. "I've never gotten used to this," she says of the smoke. Both of her children have respiratory problems. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Maria García Cruz grew up with a gas stove in rural Guatemala, but she and her husband, Venancio Juárez, can't afford one. "I've never gotten used to this," she says of the smoke. Both of her children have respiratory problems. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Firewood Collecting in San Antonio

To fuel household cooking fires, families in the developing world often spend 20 hours a week or more gathering wood—time that might otherwise be spent at school, at work, or simply at rest. These men are returning from a firewood-collecting trip to the mountains near San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

To fuel household cooking fires, families in the developing world often spend 20 hours a week or more gathering wood—time that might otherwise be spent at school, at work, or simply at rest. These men are returning from a firewood-collecting trip to the mountains near San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Cooking in San Ramon

In San Ramon, in southern Guatemala, an elderly man cooks over an open fire. He and his neighbors recently moved here from the Rio Squisal valley, near the border with Mexico, in search of better farmland. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

In San Ramon, in southern Guatemala, an elderly man cooks over an open fire. He and his neighbors recently moved here from the Rio Squisal valley, near the border with Mexico, in search of better farmland. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

San Ramon

These young people in San Ramon, Guatemala, have grown up around their family’s open cooking fire. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

These young people in San Ramon, Guatemala, have grown up around their family’s open cooking fire. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Tortillas in San Antonio

On the floor of a coffin maker’s shop in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala, an open cooking fire—and the day’s ration of tortillas—are corralled with cinderblocks. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

On the floor of a coffin maker’s shop in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala, an open cooking fire—and the day’s ration of tortillas—are corralled with cinderblocks. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Maria Mendoza

In San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala, Maria Ermelinda Lopez Mendoza stands near the cooking area in her courtyard. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

In San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala, Maria Ermelinda Lopez Mendoza stands near the cooking area in her courtyard. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Nancy Lopez

In Las Brisas, Guatemala, Nancy Lopez sits surrounded by her children. The family has an efficient wood stove with a chimney, but there is no escape from their neighbors’ smoke. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

In Las Brisas, Guatemala, Nancy Lopez sits surrounded by her children. The family has an efficient wood stove with a chimney, but there is no escape from their neighbors’ smoke. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Maria Lopez Pérez

Maria de Jesus Lopez Pérez, 62, spends some three hours a day on her knees over an open fire, making tortillas for her extended family in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Maria de Jesus Lopez Pérez, 62, spends some three hours a day on her knees over an open fire, making tortillas for her extended family in San Antonio Aguas Calientes, Guatemala. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Long Walk in San Ramon

Near San Ramon, Guatemala, a group of women carry supplies over the hilly terrain. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Near San Ramon, Guatemala, a group of women carry supplies over the hilly terrain. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Albertina Pamal

In San Lorenzo el Cubo, Guatemala, Albertina Pamal cooks on a raised concrete slab. Though the slab allows her to stand while she works, she still has to inhale the smoke from the open fire. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

In San Lorenzo el Cubo, Guatemala, Albertina Pamal cooks on a raised concrete slab. Though the slab allows her to stand while she works, she still has to inhale the smoke from the open fire. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Rosa Vicente Garcia

A month's worth of propane for this small gas stove costs Rosa Vicente Garcia and her husband more than two days' work at the Guatemala City landfill, where they scavenge for plastic and metal. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

A month's worth of propane for this small gas stove costs Rosa Vicente Garcia and her husband more than two days' work at the Guatemala City landfill, where they scavenge for plastic and metal. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Alma Iris Garay

Alma Iris Garay, 50, who fled violence in El Salvador as a child, stands next to her stove, which she has placed on the street corner so that its smoke won’t choke her. She makes tortillas on a gas stove inside her home in Guatemala City. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Alma Iris Garay, 50, who fled violence in El Salvador as a child, stands next to her stove, which she has placed on the street corner so that its smoke won’t choke her. She makes tortillas on a gas stove inside her home in Guatemala City. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Kimberly Galindo

Two years ago, Kimberly Galindo was severely burned by her family's open cooking fire. Now 10, she is still undergoing physical therapy, as well as cosmetic surgery for the scars. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Two years ago, Kimberly Galindo was severely burned by her family's open cooking fire. Now 10, she is still undergoing physical therapy, as well as cosmetic surgery for the scars. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Baby Marroquin

In the highlands of Guatemala, Dina Marroquín’s eight-day-old baby rests next to a knapsack holding an indoor air monitor—part of study to determine whether the use of gas stoves improves household air quality and children’s health. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

In the highlands of Guatemala, Dina Marroquín’s eight-day-old baby rests next to a knapsack holding an indoor air monitor—part of study to determine whether the use of gas stoves improves household air quality and children’s health. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Expedita and Gilberto

Midwife Expedita Ramírez Marroquin and her coworker Gilberto Davila examine a baby boy as part of a study of the health benefits of replacing wood-burning stoves with gas stoves. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Midwife Expedita Ramírez Marroquin and her coworker Gilberto Davila examine a baby boy as part of a study of the health benefits of replacing wood-burning stoves with gas stoves. Photo by Lynn Johnson. Guatemala, 2017.

Some three billion people around the world cook their food and heat their homes with open or barely contained fires, and while the smoke dissipates quickly, its accumulated costs are steep. The typical cooking fire produces about 400 cigarettes’ worth of smoke an hour, and prolonged exposure is associated with respiratory infections, eye damage, heart and lung disease, and lung cancer. In the developing world, health problems from smoke inhalation are a significant cause of death in both children under five and women. “The first thing we swallowed every morning was smoke,” remembers Marco Tulio Guerra, who grew up in rural eastern Guatemala and whose brother was severely burned as a child by the family cooking fire. To fuel the smoky fires, families can spend 20 hours a week or more gathering wood, time that might otherwise be spent at school, at work, or simply at rest.

Wood-burning household fires and inefficient stoves cause broader suffering, too. The firewood trade promotes deforestation and also provides cover for timber smuggling, since wood from rare trees can be hidden among logs from more common species. The smoke from cook fires pollutes the air outdoors as well as indoors, especially in cities. And as a major source of black carbon—a sunlight-absorbing pollutant—the world’s billions of household fires are also thought to be accelerating the effects of climate change, speeding the disruption of monsoon cycles and the melting of glaciers.

For the past several decades, a diffuse network of engineers and philanthropists has invented and distributed hundreds of different kinds of improved stoves throughout the developing world, ranging from tiny, gas-powered camping stoves to wood-fired ranges large enough to feed a dozen. But for a stove to be fully accepted by a household, both stove and fuel must be affordable, accessible, and easy to use—goals that aren’t easy to achieve simultaneously. And in places where the social status of women is still tightly tied to the quality of their cooking, woe to the stove whose output doesn’t measure up to local culinary standards. “When I started this work, I thought it was just a matter of choices and appliances,” says Radha Muthiah, the chief executive officer of the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which was founded in 2010 and is hosted by the United Nations Foundation, with support from public and private funds. “But as you get into it, you realize there are so many different considerations.” Muthiah and other stove experts emphasize that there is no single ideal stove or ideal fuel, as every household, every community, and every culture has different needs and priorities: a stove designed for rural Guatemala may well be completely impractical in Nairobi.

Pulitzer grantees Lynn Johnson and Michelle Nijhuis traveled to Guatemala in April 2017 to investigate the surprisingly complex problem of household smoke. Their story appeared in the September 2017 issue of National Geographic.