In Sudan, a poor young mother caring for her children gets up before dawn. She spends a considerable amount of time finding wood, only to return to her home and prepare their meal. Doing so puts her at risk of kidnapping, rape, and murder. She can spend hours a day collecting wood to cook the meals, and just as much time in a poorly ventilated makeshift kitchen, breathing in smoke that would be equivalent to smoking two packs of cigarettes a day.
In developed countries, a young mother (even one of low means) has a distinct advantage over women in underdeveloped countries. They have access to cleaner fuels to cook with, have better ventilation, and do not have to spend as much time in a kitchen, breathing in cooking fumes. They also aren’t in physical danger when they go out to collect fuel to cook with.
Women who cooked between the ages of 20 and 40 without a range hood were at a significantly higher risk for lung cancer than those who used one.
Despite the apparent differences, mothers at home with their children are still exposed to a significant amount of indoor air pollution.
An Oklahoma resident recently recounted her experience with indoor air pollution and its effect on her small family. Anna said:
“My son was 5 years old and had always been very healthy. Then we moved out of state. Instead of the electric stove, we were accustomed to cooking with, we had gas appliances. Before long we were making routine trips to the emergency room, and giving our son breathing treatments twice a day.
We couldn’t understand what would cause such a drastic change in the health of our son in such a short period of time. Finally, our doctor realized the problem. Our new home was older than our previous one, and the gas appliances paired with poor ventilation were at the root of his health problems.
Once we upgraded our appliances and installed better ventilation in our kitchen, his health greatly improved. We had our healthy and happy little boy back.”
Anna’s experience was not an isolated case. The American Journal of Epidemiology published a study in 2000 discussing the high rate of lung cancer in Taiwanese women, of which only 4% smoked. Here are some of their findings:
- Women who cooked 3 meals a day were almost three times more likely to develop lung cancer
- Women who cooked between the ages of 20 and 40 without a range hood were at a significantly higher risk for lung cancer than those who used one.
- Women who deep fried the food were at higher risk for developing lung cancer.
- Lung cancer risk increased with the number of meals cooked per day.
- A range hood could reduce the risk, but not entirely.
This study was done largely on Taiwanese women living in Taiwan, the Republic of China. These women were not smokers, though it is fair to note that some were exposed to secondhand smoke, and are more likely than women in the United States to cook at home. Many of these women live in high rises, which also compounds the effects of cooking with poor ventilation.
Using a range hood made a significant difference in the number of chemicals these women were exposed to, but due to a wide range of effectiveness among different range hoods, as well as the risk of displacement, it could not eliminate the risk completely.
UC Berkeley has also researched the effects cooking has on the indoor pollution of a home. Their study found that 60% of homes in California that cook at least once a week with a gas stove could exceed legal pollution standards. Unfortunately, these standards only apply outdoors, and no one is held accountable for the levels found in homes.
Among the dangerous pollutants found in the home, related to cooking, were formaldehyde, nitrogen dioxide, and carbon monoxide. One significant finding they had was that range hoods are not all created equally. Price is not always the determining factor, but some were quite ineffective, while others could eliminate up to 95% of pollutants.
Some tips they offered in regards to using a range hood are as follows:
- Make sure it ventilates to the exterior, as otherwise it just circulates the air within the home.
- If a rangehood isn’t accessible, open a window. That can help mitigate some of the indoor pollution.
- Make sure that the rangehood is the same size as your stovetop, if not bigger.
- Cooking on the back burners can help to reduce air pollution, especially if the range hood does not completely cover the front burners.
The head researcher, Brett Singer, stated “We want systems that don’t require people to turn things on. When your water heater comes on, the exhaust gases go outside, and you don’t have to flip a switch. It should be the same in the kitchen.”
In addition to creating high levels of pollutants in-home, and being linked to cancer, there is also evidence that not having good ventilation can create respiratory problems.
This study claims that frying fatty foods at high temperatures releases toxic products. Aldehydes and alkanoic acid can cause respiratory distress. That’s not all, fumes released can also contain carcinogens. Pneumonia is also a risk when there is a lack of ventilation. Pneumonia is a result of fatty acids irritating the airway, and fatty acids are formed when frying at high temperatures. In all, this is an additional, significant, health risk.
Air quality is an important factor in the health of our families. Simply having a range hood in the house isn’t enough, it has to be used. Don’t allow noise or other distractions to prevent the use of a rangehood. With the open floor plans that have become more common in developed countries, proper ventilation is more important than ever. Not only to the health of the cook but also to the health of the entire family.