Respiratory Diseases Among Women That Cook

By Hillary Essien | Jan 25, 2022

Around 2.6 billion people around the world cook using open fires or simple stoves fueled by kerosene, coal and biomass (wood, crop waste, animal dung) and every year, close to 4 million people die prematurely from diseases attributable to household air pollution from these unsafe cooking practises.

27% of these deaths are due to pneumonia, 20% due to chronic obstructive respiratory disease and 8% to lung cancer.   Data from the World Health Organisation establishes a link between common cooking practices and respiratory diseases that could result in death.

Anyone who has ever dropped fish in a pan of hot oil or cooked meat on an open grill can testify that the thick blend of smoke, steam and spice, can send you into a coughing fit. It is not that cooking itself is inherently bad for our bodies, but rather that some cooking fuels and methods can pose a risk to a person’s respiratory health. 

In many parts of the world, cooking is still a gendered activity. Historically, household cooking has been assigned to women, and current research confirms that women still do the majority of the cooking. If women cook more, and cooking affects respiratory health, then the issue of respiratory diseases associated with cooking is a women’s health concern.

1. Pneumonia

Pneumonia is not a strange word to the average person. It is an infection of one or both lungs caused by bacteria, viruses or fungi. Inside a person’s lungs are tiny air sacs called alveoli, and these sacs fill up with air when you breathe. When a person has pneumonia, these sacs are filled with pus and fluid which makes breathing painful and restricted. It is the largest infectious cause of death in children and has a significant burden on adults. 

Household air pollution, which often results from cooking, contributes to 28% of all deaths by pneumonia. A 2009 study in China found that going from smoky coal to smokeless coal for cooking could reduce pneumonia deaths by 50% and suggests that installing a chimney in houses could also reduce the incidence of pneumonia in such families. 

2. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD is a group of progressive lung diseases that cause obstruction to airflow and makes breathing difficult. It is a very common disease with over 1.5 million cases every year in Nigeria and can predispose its sufferers to heart disease and lung cancer. COPD is typically caused by prolonged exposure to irritating gases, like cigarette smoke, and while there is no cure for it, treatment can help slow the progression and manage the symptoms.

For a long time, COPD was perceived as a man’s disease because they are more likely to smoke – this perception is outdated. A look at epidemiological studies over the past decades suggests that COPD should be perceived as a result of human interaction with environmental pollutants.

There is a link between cooking and COPD. Data from the WHO reveals that 25% of deaths from COPD in adults in low and middle-income countries are due to exposure to household air pollution, which is often from cooking.

We are seeing an increase in physician-diagnosed COPD in women, partly due to increased smoking among women and partly to exposure to biomass fuel.  Studies now confirm that women who cook using charcoal, wood, kerosene or biomass are more likely to get the disease. In fact, women are more likely to die from COPD than breast and lung cancer combined.

So, should we just stop cooking?

It is time to bring a socioeconomic lens to this topic because the problem at hand intersects deeply with poverty. Though poverty is gendered, it comes down to establishing safe cooking methods and practices for low and middle-income households. 

Last December, Nigerians got into a heated conversation about cooking for the holidays.  It goes without saying that cooking is a big deal in these parts of the world. For the poverty capital of the world, it seems ambitious and out of touch to suggest a solution as simple as cooking with safe fuels, because while respiratory disease might seem like a risk, hunger is a bigger problem for the average man.

In light of the Covid-19 pandemic, countries imposed multiple lockdowns leading more people to work from home. Families,  especially women, are cooking more, and getting exposed to these pollutants, increasing their risk of respiratory diseases. 

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