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- Good data—scientifically grounded, peer-reviewed and comprehensive—is essential to successful public policy and any serious attempt to solve social and economic development problems.
- Indoor air pollution (IAP), which causes over 3.5 million needless deaths each year, is a massive global problem and the second-largest driver of global warming.
- Research is needed now on kerosene’s contribution to indoor air pollution, and the impact of cook stove and solar lantern adoption and use to serve as useful resources for decision makers.
Good data—scientifically grounded, peer-reviewed and comprehensive—is essential to successful public policy and any serious attempt to solve social and economic development problems. The right blend of qualitative and quantitative inquiry can illuminate the scope and dimensions of a problem, uncover root causes, and reliably test whether alternative solutions actually work to produce lasting change in the real world.
Indoor air pollution (IAP) is an excellent example: A massive global problem and the second-largest driver of global warming, IAP causes over 3.5 million needless deaths each year, mainly in the developing world, and has a disproportionate impact on women and children. Indoor air pollution has been the focus of good research – up to a point.
The State of the Art
One of the most trusted sources of data-driven guidance for global health policy makers and practitioners is the “Global Burden of Disease” (GBD) report. The latest report was published in December 2012 in The Lancet. The largest, most well respected, and best-funded study of its kind in the world, the GBD is an extraordinary collaboration based on the combined research of over 400 scientists in more than 300 institutions in 50 countries.
The GBD is the primary resource providing the data on which many of the World Health Organization’s (WHO) global health estimates are based. Both GBD and WHO powerfully influence the agendas of policy makers and practitioners focused on developing world health problems. Consider cook stoves: Armed with the GBD’s findings and WHO’s estimates that household air pollution from solid cooking fuel (wood, dung, charcoal) used by 2.8 billion people worldwide kills millions of people every year (about as many as malaria and tuberculosis combined), cook stoves became one of the most talked about public health initiatives in the world today. Garnering celebrity attention, tremendous resources were mobilized very quickly and rapid progress was made. More than $135 million came through in funding, including U.S. government support for the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which was formed in 2010. Widespread adoption of cleaner cook stoves – if they are used, and function well throughout long term use and have the predicted impact – could transform the health and quality of lives of millions—if not billions—in the developing world.
But how much do we really know about adoption and the long-term efficacy of clean cook stoves? Do consumers use them? How broadly and regularly? Do they displace solid fuels and reduce indoor air pollution? How long do they last in daily use in the demanding developing world conditions? What happens when they break or need repair? For clean cook stoves – and the massive resources devoted to their adoption – driving their potential impact requires continued advances in our understanding of how they work in the real world.
More fundamentally, do clean cook stoves address the whole problem, or only part of it? Would eradication of solid fuel cook stoves eliminate indoor air pollution? Despite their exceptional quality, the world’s top international research efforts only consider solid cooking fuels, not liquid fuels like kerosene. A growing body of evidence suggests that cook stoves are not the only major source of indoor air pollution. Kerosene lanterns are also a big part of the problem and demand urgent, similarly robust research and policy focus.
The Impact of Kerosene
Kerosene lanterns are as ubiquitous in the developing world as solid fuel cook stoves. Nearly half of all humanity – over 3 billion people – uses kerosene lanterns for lighting, and virtually the same number (2.8 billion per GBD and WHO) use solid fuel stoves for cooking. Could these users be the same families, in the same households? Certainly there must be overlap. We need to go beyond what we know to gain a deeper understanding of the effects of kerosene lanterns and their interaction with cook stoves.
What do we know about the damage done by kerosene smoke? The best research in the world today from The Lancet’s December GBD report did not look at the share of indoor air pollution driven by kerosene. The environmental damage caused by kerosene smoke may also be much worse than previously believed. A recent Environmental Science and Technology article reports that as much as 10% of kerosene smoke is pure black carbon (soot) – 20 times higher than previous studies had found. A subsequent article in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres presents data that black carbon (soot) may actually be the second biggest contributor to global warming, surpassing methane, which is an exceptionally toxic gas.
Given the nearly universal use of kerosene lanterns in the developing world, these new findings are alarming, and leave numerous unanswered questions. But they offer a starting point for the research that is needed to understand kerosene’s contribution to health problems in the developing world, and to global warming. Billions of dollars in global health and environmental policy and intervention investments depend on a strong data-driven foundation to be successful.
Getting Good Data Could be Easy
If solid fuel cook stoves and kerosene lanterns are used in the same households, then getting the answers we need may be straightforward and low cost. While in the field, mothers being surveyed about their use of solid fuel cook stoves could also be asked a few questions about their use of kerosene for lighting. Some additional field observations could be recorded. Existing resources allocated to studies planned for cook stoves research could be very easily leveraged to quickly and inexpensively begin to build a body of knowledge about the effects of kerosene lighting.
Moreover, there are major policy implications that can be tackled cost-effectively by building on research findings related to cook stoves. Since solar lanterns have higher adoption rates than clean cook stoves, such alternatives to kerosene for lighting may provide quick, cost-effective data for promoting policies that reduce indoor air pollution.
Everyone concerned with indoor air pollution, health, natural resources in the developing world and global warming has a stake in these questions. Policymakers, development agencies, academic institutions, and the research community – all of these stakeholder groups should care about closing the evidence gap around the health and environmental damage from household kerosene use. International research focused on this topic must include collaboration with the entire ecosystem of academics; social entrepreneurs, policymakers and consumers to better understand all the causes of indoor air pollution and create the best solutions.
d.light is committed to studying the replacement effects and other impacts of our solar-powered light and power products in the most rigorous ways our size and resources permit. We measure and report our impact to the public on a monthly basis, posted on our website’s Social Impact Dashboard. We have experienced monitoring and evaluation management specialists on our staff who are engaged in key strategic decisions. We have developed a comprehensive theory of change, and have a multi-year plan for validating it. We are undertaking sophisticated large-scale research into a small subset of these questions.
We are doing what we can. Others must join us. The issues of kerosene – and essential missing data – are beyond the scope of any one company or institution. The Global Burden of Disease’s research consortium and WHO, for example, could make an enormous contribution to our collective understanding by moving beyond solid cooking fuels in their research.
Good data is essential to effective policy and action. The latest research on indoor air pollution is alarming. While it sharpens our understanding of the issue, it leaves many unanswered questions. It must spark additional investment in the advancement of knowledge in this critical area. We need to accelerate the momentum of efforts to improve the measurement of kerosene’s contribution to indoor air pollution, and the impact of cook stove and solar lantern adoption and use. We are taking action and will do our share, but we can’t do it alone. We believe it is our collective responsibility to develop a data-driven basis for policy and action. And it cannot wait.