Tuesday, January 22, 2008

New! Improved! Green! - oh, yeah, and dead children.

Sorry for my high post rate here, hopefully we won't reach overload on either end.  Hadn't intended to post at all today, give things a chance to sink in- but-

There's a story today on the NYT that just made me see red.  This is another "WHY can't we do Science right???" post.  And why can't it be reported right?

Wow, sounds great huh?

Maybe, maybe not.  One of the things I've studied in detail is the process of innovation- start to finished installation of new idea/technology.  (Why?  Because humans need to do a lot of changing- and we're lousy at it.  The history of innovation might be good to know about.)

First thing you ask about a "new" idea - has somebody else already done/tried this?

No indication in this article they bothered with that.  Just - "gosh, I was choking on the air inside!  Must be awful to have to live with!"  Never mind that they DO LIVE with it, and have for millennia.   Don't bother to guess that they have ways of moving, sitting, and managing so they avoid the smoke most of the time.  Don't ask.

Yes, dozens of inventors have looked at 3rd world cooking/cookstoves and come up with much "better" ways to do it; ways that use less wood, or make less smoke.  Very few of them work out well.  Would be a good idea to ask if it's been tried before around here.

Guess what?  It has.

The critical quote from this German peer reviewed study: 

In terms of cooking practices, use of an improved stove was associated with an increase in the risk of severe malaria (OR=3.39, p=0.004, 95%CL=1.49-7.75) as was an average cooking time less than three hours per day (OR=2.18, p=0.02, 95%CL=1.14-4.18).

What?  Yeah, turns out that nasty smoke is the only thing keeping the mosquitoes out of the house.  Guess who suffers?  It's the children.  They die.  Big improvement.

No mention of this possibility in this lovely piece of PR for Shell, of course.

This ticks me off.  This is not my area of expertise; I just read the science news- and even I knew about this connection.  As far as we can tell, neither the scientist at the Shell Foundation, nor the journalist with the rosy reporting, bothered to ask  question #1 - "has this been tried before?"

And will anybody notice this post, when the New Improved Regan-Bush Depression is getting underway today?



Anonymous said...

Oh, yeah? If smoke really keeps all the bloodthirsty pests away, how do you explain that Bush and Cheney are still inhabiting the White House, given the giant smoke screen surrounding it? Do they just blow smoke but not inhale?

Greenpa said...

anon - I think it's the difference between live bloodsuckers and undead ones... :-)

Anonymous said...

Am a little confused about your post - you seem angry that some people have been developing a stove that is healthier for the users because one study published last June may indicate that a more smoke free home allows an increase in malaria. Malaria is already one of the biggest killers - along with dysentery that we (the general we) know of and yet not enough is done. I'd agree that a rant about not enough being done would certainly be justified but helping women and children also have less health problems due to cooking fires isn't a bad thing either, deaths and long term health problems she cited aren't insignificant. Now I'd like to see these stoves also more efficient so women and children are freed from the tyranny of feeding it, better ecology and more opportunities in general. But getting Malaria and dysentery wiped out should of course be the main goal of the world's larger health organizations - leaving the stove making to the small ones. I am perhaps naively unconcerned where that money comes from, after all some of the richest families here in the US can trace their monies back to slavery or nasty practices in other eras - should we spurn their contributions now?

Greenpa said...

Liese - who, me, cranky? :-) I DID state I was ticked off, so you might take that into account.

I still am (but not at you). However- if you'd read the bibliography for that "one study" - you'd find that smoke and malaria have been studied for many decades. And if you'd ever lived with an aboriginal people - you'd likely know they've been using smoke, quite knowingly, to handle mosquitoes, forever, and everywhere. They KNOW what the tradeoffs are.

And - lots of other "improved stoves" have already been developed, deployed- and disappeared. Because in some way, they don't actually fit into the world we casually drop them into.

NOBODY would like to improve the living conditions for them more than I would. Ask Beelar, who I sucked into giving half a year of his life for a 3rd world technology- which I borrowed thousands of dollars to support.

But- rule 1 in the third world - ASK THEM what they need. Then have a woman ask the women again- when there are no men around.

How many of those mothers do you suppose would like to install that new stove - if you put it this way. "well, you'll have less work to do, and the air will be cleaner. You'll probably live 5 years longer, and so will your family. Of course, one or two of the babies may die of malaria, who wouldn't otherwise."

I don't see any mother I know trading 5 years of old age for a live baby, do you? Very often the way those "improvements" get installed is: the agency gives a new Mercedes Benz to the headman (or something similar) - and he requires the women to do it. They don't get a real say.

Partly what ticks me off so much is the fake selling of HOPE. Here, this wonderful, life is better now! Brought to you by Shell!

And it's likely to be total crock. And it would HELP if the "scientist" involved did his homework; and the reporter actually did a balanced report- And so far as we can tell, they didn't.

DC said...

This is a tough one. A CDC report came out a few years ago that estimated that about 750,000 African children under five die each year from malaria. Most worldwide deaths from malaria (90% of them) occur in Africa, particularly sub-Saharan Africa.

On the other hand, woodsmoke from cooking fires causes respiratory infections that kill millions of people each year. One article I read recently indicated that five million young children may die each year from cooking fire woodsmoke. In addition to killing people, the smoke causes a host of other health problems.

One idea I have read about (that doesn't involve #$%@ing Shell) to reduce the amount of cooking smoke in developing countries is to provide inexpensive solar cookers. They don't completely replace wood fires, but they reduce the need for them. The widespread use of these cookers may increase malaria rates, but perhaps other measures could be taken simultaneously to help control mosquitoes and fight malaria -- addressing global warming would be a good start. Making malaria drugs available to poor people would be okay with me too. The The African Malaria Report estimates $1 billion a year is needed to significantly reduce malaria rates. Thus far, approximately $200 million a year is spent. The U.S. spends $1 billion dollars on the Iraq war in four days.

We have screwed this world up pretty well at this point, and there are problems and tradeoffs everywhere. I commend people like Greenpa who give generously to others and do everything possible in the way they live their own lives to make a difference.

DC said...

And btw, if anyone wants to know just how much Shell really cares about people in Africa, read this to learn all about their "humanitarian" efforts in Nigeria.

historicstitcher said...

You said it so well - and it's something that happens so often! "First-worlders" feel the need to "help" those "less-fortunate" and truck in some "improvement". The plastic containers to lighten the load of women carrying water in certain countires comes to mind. Thanks to our "help" dysentery and other water-borne illnesses increased dramatically in families using the new, lightweight plastic jugs rather than the traditional metal (in which the copper reduced pathogen counts to near-zero in less than 36 hours...)

And then there's the mercury artisinal mining "improvements", the introduction of infant formula in poor countries with contaminated water,...I could go on and on.

Thanks again for sharing something so relavant!

Hanley Tucks said...

"But- rule 1 in the third world - ASK THEM what they need. Then have a woman ask the women again- when there are no men around."

Well, that's where you've gone wrong, mate.

You should know that we developed Westerners know what's good for those savage darkies. And of course men always know better than women! Why else would the world be ruled by rich old white men? They obviously know best!

Ask the locals? Absurd idea. What would the locals know about what's good for them?!

Christy said...

Never too many posts for me! I don't usually have much to say but you sure give me a lot to think about. Generally, I don't feel I have much to add to the conversation since much of what you post about I really don't know much about.

just ducky said...

You know...it is posts like these that remind me how out of touch I am with the world. Had I read that first article I would have thought "How wonderful!"...I am not scientifically minded (sadly) nor am I well read on the world's happenings. I fully agree that before these "wonderful inventions" are created--the inventors should ask the people they are trying to "save"...What do you want/need most?

Thanks Greenpa, for being knowledgeable about these issues and sharing your sources with us. If someone makes a logical argument and backs it up with solid, reputable facts--I sit up and listen!

BoysMom said...

You know, I asked my husband once about something I read about a campaign to get parents in Africa to have their kids sleep under nets. He's from West Africa.
He said that the nets are suffocatingly hot, cut out any breezes, and kids will toss and turn until they kick them off.

Carrie said...

Reminds me of when some colonials tried to teach some west african people how to farm "properly" using plows and were surprised when all the dirt washed away and nothing grew. There might be reasons some places didn't invent the wheel -- maybe they're not dumb, it just didn't help!

Billy said...

Me again. This article brings up a question of mine. Perhaps you could lend some advice.

The research I've done on heating for food has only resulted in seemingly balanced arguments from the two options I have at my hands. I have an old propane grill ($5 at a garage sale), as well as an electric stove that came with the place I am renting. The most convincing information I read said that propane actually releases a ton of CO2 into the atmosphere, since it is a natural gas, and that the methods of obtaining electricity have become efficient enough to surpass the carbon emissions of propane. However, other readings have said that propane may just be slightly more efficient than electricity, although the fact that it is a natural gas does in fact bring down the resourcefulness of the energy source.

i don't own any type of device that would allow me to burn wood...

So I guess what I'm wondering is if you have any facts/opinions straight out of how someone should go about heating food (if they did in fact have all three options -- wood, propane and electricity)