Cooking over an open fire in Ghana. (Photo: Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves)

The air in a kitchen has to be very clean to protect women and children from multiple diseases. Unfortunately, moderate amounts of smoke seem to damage health almost as much as higher concentrations. 

As exposure rises from zero, the chance that a child will get pneumonia increases sharply and then levels off so that indoor air with 200μg/m3 PM2.5 is almost as dangerous as air at 400μg/m3 (Burnett et al., 2014). The World Health Organization Intermediate Guideline for PM2.5 is 35μg/m3.

In order of effectiveness, when cooking in a kitchen, health interventions seem to be:

  1. Venting smoke up a functional chimney.
  2. Increasing the fresh air entering the kitchen to dilute smoke and gases. (When the outdoor air is clean and the air exchange rate is doubled, the indoor air pollution is reduced by half.)
  3.  Burning up almost all of the smoke in the stove.

 Unvented Rocket stoves, and other ‘moderately clean burning’ stoves (such as a carefully tended open fire with pot skirt), emit much too much smoke and gas to protect health in houses. 

Cooking outside, especially upwind of the fire in a bit of breeze, is highly effective in lowering harmful concentrations of PM2.5.

Cooking outside seems to be a first choice intervention, when applicable. Even ‘moderately clean burning biomass stoves’ can be used when the cook is upwind of the fire in a bit of a breeze, meeting the WHO Intermediate Guideline for PM2.5. 

Of course, cooking with a low emission stove is preferable, when possible!

I didn’t realize that natural gas is mostly methane which is about 84 times worse for climate change compared to CO2.

As reported in the recently published study “Methane and NOx Emissions from Natural Gas Stoves, Cooktops, and Ovens in Residential Homes,” methane leaks are bad news for both environmental and personal health. (Lebel, et al, Environ. Sci. Technol. 2022, 56, 4, 2529–2539)

Methane risks

The abstract in the Lebel article states:

  • Natural gas stoves in >40 million U.S. residences release methane (CH4) ─a potent greenhouse gas, through post-meter leaks and incomplete combustion.
  • Using a 20-year timeframe for methane, annual methane emissions from all gas stoves in U.S. homes have a climate impact comparable to the annual carbon dioxide emissions of 500,000 cars.
  • In addition to methane emissions, co-emitted health-damaging air pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx) are released into home air and can trigger respiratory diseases.
  • Our data suggest that families who don’t use their range hoods or who have poor ventilation can surpass the one hour national standard of NO2 (100 ppb) within a few minutes of stove usage, particularly in smaller kitchens.
Dos por Tres Stove with Chimney, photo courtesy of Proyecto Mirador

During an ETHOS panel discussion on Cooking, Health, and Climate, it was great to see that the Justa stove with chimney protected health so well. Chimneys are mandated by law in the USA/Europe/China and many other countries. When Mahatma Gandhi returned to India from England he introduced chimneys as a logical upgrade of kitchens.

The WHO (2018) listed five prescriptions to protect health:

  1.  Use only clean household energy when available 
  2. While waiting for gas, use technologies like low-emission biomass cook stoves
  3. Minimize the time children spend around smoky fires
  4. Increase ventilation
  5. Install a chimney

Functional chimneys are the historical first step to protect health.  It’s so pleasant to sit and chat in the clean kitchen when a Justa, Dos por Tres, or Patsari stove is being used! Following up with improved combustion efficiency helps to protect climate and outdoor air quality.

A Justa Stove with chimney, photo courtesy of Stove Team International

pdf available at: deohs.washington.edu/sites/default/files/AirFilterInfographic_FINAL.pdf

I hope that you are living in a smoke free environment! There’s a forest fire about 40 miles east of the lab that floods our valley with smoke when the wind slows down. I just looked up and noticed that it was getting hard to see Blue Mountain, a sure sign that the northwesterly wind wasn’t pushing hard enough to clear the skies. It reminded me of living on the Coromandel Coast in India where a blue sky was unlikely even at the beach.

Burning up smoke is not all that difficult to do: just thoroughly mix the smoke into the flame. But that doesn’t happen in a forest fire (or in a three stone fire). The smoke and flame go in different directions. The industrial reduction of PM2.5 often depends on both improved combustion efficiency and the post-combustion filtration/scrubbing of emissions. When I can’t see Blue Mountain anymore, I switch on a box fan that has a 20” by 20” by 1” furnace filter taped onto the inlet side of the fan. The fan pulls the dirty air in my office through the filter and the PM2.5 is removed from the air that I’m breathing.

Simple cooking enclosure

We wrote a paper describing how the same fan and filter reduced PM2.5 when installed in a hood over the stove. We used a washable filter and hoped that the combination of a clean burning stove with post combustion filtration of smoke might help to protect inside and outside air quality. Check out the paper: Still, D. K., Bentson, S., Murray, N., Andres, J., Yue, Z., & MacCarty, N. A. (2018). Laboratory experiments regarding the use of filtration and retained heat to reduce particulate matter emissions from biomass cooking. Energy for Sustainable Development, 42, 129–135. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esd.2017.09.011

Smoky kitchen with no chimney vs. kitchen with chimney and clear air
Reducing/removing smoke from the kitchen improves health.
Adding a chimney is one recommended solution.

In 2014, the World Health Organization (WHO) published intermediate and final indoor air guidelines for vented and unvented biomass cooking stoves. Their strong recommendation directed governments and implementers to advocate technologies and fuels that are proven to protect health. The WHO advises implementers that to protect health the cook stove intervention should not exceed the following air pollutant emission rates in actual use:

WHO Intermediate Emission Rate Targets:

Unvented stove Vented stove
PM 2.5:  1.75 mg/minPM 2.5 7.15 mg/min
CO:   0.35 g/minCO:  1.45 g/min

Many newer biomass cookstoves with chimneys meet the WHO Targets of 7mg/minute for PM2.5 and 1.45 g/minute for CO when tested in the laboratory. Adding chimneys to cook stoves makes them more costly, but ARC designers are relieved to have a “line drawn in the sand.” As seen in Sam and Shikhar’s video last week, experiments in the ARC Test Kitchen showed that a natural draft hood can also be a big help in protecting health.

Protecting outdoor air quality is equally important. Dr. Nordica MacCarty (Oregon State University) and Ken Newcombe (C-Quest Capital) will be investigating effects on indoor and outdoor air when the combination of a natural draft earthen hood and a CQC earthen stove with Jet-Flame is used in houses in Malawi. Ken and CQC are invested in protecting health and have funded the study.

Industrial technologies routinely achieve strict standards for combustion efficiency and further reduce emissions with post combustion techniques. Introducing these well-known applications into cook stoves seems a logical progression. Clean up combustion and, at the same time, clean up the indoor and outdoor air. We have been very successful doing this in the US and Europe, and China is now on the same path.

The WHO vented stove Emission Rate Targets are based on 75% of the smoke and gases being removed up the chimney and out of the house. In their review of field studies, an average of 25% of the smoke and gas remained in the kitchen. Almost none of the residential biomass heating stoves in the United States meet the WHO Targets for PM 2.5 but the chimney transports the smoke outside where it is diluted by clean outdoor air to safe levels of concentration.

Meeting emission targets is a necessary and ever present goal. At the same time, wood burning stoves can be improved in many other ways. Improving the smoky mud stove to use less fuel is not a complete cure but is very helpful, benefitting the user who either pays for the fuel or has to collect it. The functional chimney makes a tremendous difference by sending smoke and gas out of the kitchen, making it a more pleasant and healthy environment. Making the high mass stove safer results in fewer burns. The list of improvements goes on and on – making the stove better at cooking local foods, increasing the number of air exchanges per hour in the kitchen, moving the kitchen outdoors, etc.

In the real world, positive changes are hard to accomplish but are always great.

The old saying, “if you can’t handle the heat, get out of the kitchen,” is not lost on us when we are working in the test kitchen. It takes us a while to get the vertical and horizontal grid of Climate Solution Consulting’s HAPEx particulate matter monitors started and positioned. Then ARC’s PEMS-PC partial-capture based emissions sampler has to collect a zero point of the gasses in the atmosphere. Don’t forget the temperature sensors (where is that data?) and the wood. This is after reviewing yesterday’s work, discussing a plan for the day, and watering the garden. So, by the time the young scientist rolls into the test kitchen in the Oregon summer, currently home of America’s largest wildfire, it’s about 100°F and rising. But science must go on.

ARC’s four year old test kitchen is currently being used to test a natural draft hood of our design. Our experiment allows us to operate the fire without being exposed to the emissions from the fire. We used to use a vacuum cleaner as a positive pressure ventilator, but now we sit outside of the room and feed the fire through a glove box.  After seeing that the hood was effective enough to reduce the concentration of PM2.5 in the test kitchen to below 35 ug (averaged over 24 hr), we turned the hood around and made a video for you of us doing the water boiling test while enjoying a smoke free kitchen.

Enjoy the video (and know that those loud pumps and fans go with the bit about it being hot in the kitchen).

Please send your photos and stories of natural draft hoods! We don’t want to lose this beautiful technology.

-Sam Bentsen, Aprovecho Research Center General Manager

It’s fascinating to read the ISO 19867 Standards for cookstoves and I agree with a lot of it. Many of us in the ‘stove world’ were involved for years in creating those documents. One of the big improvements is testing stoves at high, medium, and low power while reporting the results with the firepower.

We forgot to do that in the International Working Agreement started in Peru at the Partnership for Clean Indoor Air meeting in 2011. Since stoves generally make fewer emissions at low power it was a temptation to reduce the firepower and achieve a higher score on the Tiers. Since firepower was not seen on the Tier scorecard, it was really not possible to compare performance. And as we know, people tend to like high power stoves. It’s so great that this problem has been fixed in ISO 19867.

How to get a Tier 5 score for emissions? Use a chimney.

Santa Claus in a chimney
Santa understands the importance of chimneys… Happy Holidays from the Aprovecho team!

The chimney transports most or all of the PM2.5 and CO out of the kitchen. Only “fugitive” emissions escape into the room. In ISO 19867 the fugitive emissions are used for the emission rate values. For unvented stoves, total emissions are used for the emission rate values. Just make sure that your chimney and stove do not leak.

It makes sense. Here in rural Oregon, unfortunately, smoke pours out of chimneys all day and night as folks stay warm with wood. Heating stoves can be very smoky! The airtight chimney and stove get essentially all of the smoke outside of the building where concentrations are and stove get essentially all of the smoke outside of the building where concentrations are diluted.

Now, of course, at ARC we try to combine high combustion efficiency with effective chimneys. We need to protect the quality of the outside air, as well. The combination is intended to protect indoor and outdoor air. If the outdoor air is polluted it is less effective in lowering harmful concentrations. Combustion efficiency is always great and to protect health it must increase when the outside air quality is degraded. In Beijing you don’t want to add one more milligram of smoke into the air!

An indoor/outdoor air quality planning tool.

Sam Bentson created an excel spreadsheet that explains how protecting indoor and outdoor air quality are related. You can download the spreadsheet here, and learn how to use it for project planning: aprovecho.org/portfolio-item/project-planning/

Chart showing how more air exchanges reduces indoor air pollution from cooking
Chart describing the influence of air exchange per hour rates on the concentration of PM2.5 in a 30 cubic meter room. Higher air exchanges equal lower PM2.5 concentrations.
Using the ISO box model, Sam Bentson has calculated how increased ventilation helps a classic Rocket stove (around 30 mg/minute of PM2.5) and a modern TLUD burning pellets (about 5mg/minute PM2.5) to protect health.

In the lab, we are used to thinking of the ISO Tiers as static, based on how much pollution enters a 30 cubic foot kitchen during four hours of cooking with 15 air exchanges per hour. However, in 2018 ISO published 19867-3 that further explains how, for example, increasing the air exchange rate (ACH) changes the Tier rating. Generally, doubling the air exchange rate cuts pollution (PM2.5 and CO) in half.

In a low ventilation situation (10 ACH), Tier 4 requires that the emissions of CO are lower than 2.2 grams per megajoule delivered to the pot (g/MJd). But in a higher ventilation condition (30 ACH) the stove can be three times dirtier, emitting up to 7 g/MJd, and still be in Tier 4. Cooking outside is often employed by the cooks we work with because smoke is bothersome and unhealthy.

ISO 19867-3 reports that studies of air exchange rates have found a lot of variation in ventilation, from 4 ACH in very tight buildings to 100 ACH outside in the fresh air. When I lived on a ranch in Mexico, most of the cooking took place outside under a veranda (which also made it easier to smell the wonderful homemade coffee brewing in the early mornings). When Sam Bentson carefully measured the ventilation rate under our veranda in Oregon he also found that when a gentle breeze was blowing (2 MPH) the air exchange rate per hour was around 100.

At 100 ACH, with so much dilution occurring outside, achieving Tier 4 for PM2.5 and CO is easier. In our experience, the most successful and cost effective interventions are situation dependent. We find that a combination of approaches to protecting health enables a welcome adaptability to the actual and interwoven circumstances.

Ornate chimneys at Hampton Court Palace, London
Ornate chimneys at Hampton Court Palace, London
Multiple ornate chimneys grace Hampton Court Palace.

An Important Health Intervention

When cooking stoves are tested in the field the emissions of PM2.5 and CO are often higher than lab results (Roden et al., 2009). The wood can be wetter, the fire is made with less attention, and many real life variables create higher levels of pollution. It’s hard to imagine that unvented cookstoves for indoor use can be invented that will protect health when too much wet fuel is pushed quickly into the combustion chamber. Even modern cars make a lot of smoke when trying to combust bad quality gasoline.

Clean burning stoves require clean fuel just like automobiles. The sticks of wood need to be relatively dry and the metering of the sticks into the combustion chamber cannot happen too quickly. Perhaps batch fed pellet stoves will have more similar lab and field results if the pellets are well made, dry, and clean?

It’s illegal to install most types of unvented combustion devices in the United States and Europe. Even natural gas room heaters and gas cooking stoves are vented. For realistic protection of health, ARC consultants try to attach chimneys to biomass cookstoves whenever possible. When the stove smokes at least the pollution goes outside above the roof line where it becomes diluted.

Health Supportive Alternatives

Adding a chimney is not always a possibility. In these cases, it is helpful to move cooking out of the closed kitchen, for example under a veranda in the open air. Increasing air exchange rates by cooking under a veranda has been shown to dramatically lower concentrations of harmful PM and CO. Even opening the door and window in a test kitchen lowered the particulate matter 1-hour concentrations between 93% to 98% compared to the closed kitchen, and the CO 1-hour concentrations were 83% to 95% lower (Grabow et al., 2013).

Hundreds of years ago in Europe chimneys were developed as a first step to take smoke and gases outside of the kitchen. In the United States millions of wood burning heating stoves are used indoors every winter. Chimneys transport the pollution outdoors where it is mixed with the outside air.

References

Roden, C. A., Bond, T. C., Conway, S., Osorto Pinel, A. B., MacCarty, N., & Still, D. (2009). Laboratory and field investigations of particulate and carbon monoxide emissions from traditional and improved cookstoves. Atmospheric Environment, 43(6), 1170–1181. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.atmosenv.2008.05.041

Grabow, K., Still, D., & Bentson, S. (2013). Test Kitchen studies of indoor air pollution from biomass cookstoves. Energy for Sustainable Development, 17(5), 458–462. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.esd.2013.05.003

Box fan with filter reduces PM2.5