Two UNC Gillings School of Global Health faculty members are part of a University of North Carolina research team that received a $2.5 million National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) grant to study the relationship of indoor air pollutants, health, and poverty in Rwanda.
Dr. Leena Nylander-French, professor of environmental sciences and engineering, and Dr. Karin Yeatts, research assistant professor of epidemiology, are collaborators on “The Health and Poverty Effects of a Large-Scale Cookstove Initiative in Rwanda,” a project that will evaluate the impact of a private-sector cookstove and fuel-distribution intervention upon exposure to airborne pollutants, health, and poverty.
Co-principal investigators on the project are Dr. Sudhanshu Handa and Dr. Pamela Jagger, both in the department of public policy in UNC’s College of Arts and Sciences.
Household air pollution (HAP) and ambient particulate matter are two major contributors to the global disease burden, Dr. Yeatts said – accounting for 3.5 million and 3.1 million deaths, respectively. In sub-Saharan Africa, burning of solid fuels for cooking is the second most important risk factor for burden of disease. In Rwanda, where households use fuel wood, charcoal and other biomass for cooking, HAP is the primary risk factor for burden of disease, including infectious diseases, cardiological and circulatory diseases, chronic respiratory infection, cancer, and other noncommunicable diseases.
[Photo: Dr. Leena Nylander-French, professor of environmental sciences and engineering (right), and Dr. Karin Yeatts, research assistant professor of epidemiology, are UNC Gillings School collaborators on “The Health and Poverty Effects of a Large-Scale Cookstove Initiative in Rwanda,” a project that will evaluate the impact of a private-sector cookstove and fuel-distribution intervention upon exposure to airborne pollutants, health and poverty]
“Improved cooking technology, if used correctly and taken to scale, has the potential for significantly reducing the global disease burden,” Dr. Yeatts said.
Dependence upon biomass has other serious implications for human and environmental well-being, including environmental degradation from charcoal production and fuelwood collection; contribution of black carbon, a catalyst for regional climate change, to the atmosphere; and limiting the amount of time women and girls – who are responsible for most fuel collection – may spend on schooling or other educational and career activities.
The aims of the research are threefold. The team will evaluate:
The project is novel in that the researchers have partnered with a private-sector initiative that has a unique business model for promoting cleaner cooking.
Inyenyeri, a private social entrepreneurship venture, contracts with households who agree to cook with gasifier (smokeless) stoves and use fuel pellets produced in the Inyenyeri factory. The company will provide free cookstoves to more than 50,000 households in western Rwanda and implement a fuel pellet business over the next three years. The researchers’ study design was developed to incorporate the Inyenyeri business plan.
“This is a unique and – we feel –productive partnership,” Dr. Yeatts said. “We will follow both villages, with and without the new cook stoves, and examine whether there are changes in health over time in the villagers. Our goals are not only to quantify multiple health effects related to cookstove air pollutants, but also to examine how clean fuel technology might improve the economic well-being of women and children.”
Dr. Nylander-French said that the unique characteristics of the project allow researchers to measure personal exposures to major air pollutants, including carcinogenic hydrocarbons, multiple times over an extended period.
“This is rarely done in epidemiology studies,” she said. “This measurement strategy will allow us to develop more accurate models to understand the relationship between the exposure and adverse health effects of cookstove emissions. Understanding the magnitude and consequences of toxic exposures is critical to both intervention and prevention of disease because we don’t know why some people develop disease and others don’t. Our study has the potential to improve the health outcomes of millions of people globally.”