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Change of fuel could extend lives in Africa

Sid Perkins

Almost all rural Africans and nearly three-quarters of those in urban centers use some combination of wood, dried dung, and charcoal as their primary source of household energy. By exclusively burning charcoal or, better yet, kerosene or another fossil fuel, many Africans could significantly trim indoor air pollution and prevent as many as 3.7 million premature deaths from lung disease over a 30-year period, says Majid Ezzati of the Harvard School of Public Health in Boston.

Indoor pollutants from wood and dung fires cause about 400,000 deaths each year, says Ezzati. From 2000 to 2030, the premature death toll from respiratory ailments in sub-Saharan Africa will total more than 9.8 million people, he and his colleagues predict.

Their analysis, published in the April 1 Science, suggests that a rapid transition toward using more charcoal and less wood and dung would stave off as many as 2.8 million premature deaths in the 30-year period. A quick shift instead to kerosene or other petroleum-based fuels probably would save an additional million lives, says Ezzati.



It boggles my mind that someone paid for a study of the benefits of petroleum-based fuel in Africa when a superior, lower-cost solution is already available. For the cost of the study, solar cookers might have been provided to several thousand families, protecting the health of those families and saving them the time and expense of gathering fuel, not to mention protecting the environment from smoke. The world is currently experiencing a shortage of petroleum-based fuels. It is unlikely that most African families could afford the better fuels—nor can we afford to be encouraging more people to use them.

Anne Barschall
Tarrytown, NY


Bailis, R., M. Ezzati, and D.M. Kammen. 2005. Mortality and greenhouse gas impacts of biomass and petroleum energy futures in Africa. Science 308(April 1):98–103. Abstract.

Further Readings:

Perkins, S. 2001. Charcoal warms the whole world. Science News 160(Dec. 15):383. Available at Science News.


Majid Ezzati
Harvard School of Public Health
Building 1, Room 1108A
665 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115

From Science News, Volume 167, No. 19, May 7, 2005, p. 301.