As women age, they battle chronic diseases while playing an important role in the care of their families. Partners In Health is working to address chronic diseases through regular visits and accompaniment of community health workers.
Women's groups come together to reducing the threat of respiratory disease in Guatemala.
“After nearly one year of use, the results are nothing less than dramatic,” said Lindsay Palazuelos, PIH’s project coordinator in Guatemala. A project has sharply reduced the wood smoke that causes lung disease by introducing improved cooking stoves in the rural village of Jacaltenango, Guatemala.
In July 2011, PIH and the PIH-supported Equipo Tecnico en Educación y Salud Comunitaria (ETESC) partnered with women’s groups from dozens of communities to organize and implement this project, largely led by family matriarchs, women who run their families' homes and care for children and often grandchildren. In total, 175 families learned to install, use, and maintain improved wood-burning ONIL stoves, manufactured by HELPS International.
In a region where wood is the main source of cooking fuel, harmful smoke fills kitchens and forests steadily shrink as people chop down trees for fuel.
Less than a year after receiving new stoves, families saw a 90 percent decrease in kitchen smoke, significantly reducing both wood consumption and the smoke-related diseases – asthma, chronic respiratory disease, and lung cancer – affecting people in rural communities like Jacaltenango.
Only 6 percent of women in participating households reported coughing during or immediately after cooking, a steep decline from the 46 percent of women who reported coughing prior to receiving new stoves.
On average, the 24-hour carbon monoxide exposure readings in homes outfitted with the new stoves fell by 77 percent.
Families also decreased the amount of wood they used by 50 to 70 percent.
A "hidden" health crisis
"Visitors to rural Guatemalan homes are often astounded by the thick smoke filling people’s homes,” Palazuelos said. Families spend a significant amount of time and money buying, chopping, and hauling wood to cook meals and heat water, all of which has to happen multiple times a day.
“Because of this, it’s not uncommon to meet middle-aged women suffering from emphysema or chronic bronchitis, as if they were lifetime smokers,” Palazuelos said. “But instead of a two-pack-a-day habit, they’ve simply been making beans and tortillas in a smoky kitchen.”
Roughly 90 percent of rural households worldwide still use solid fuels such as wood and charcoal for cooking. As a result, an estimated 1.5 million people die prematurely from smoke-related diseases each year, making this the eighth most dangerous contributor to the global burden of disease.
In response to high rates of respiratory illness, ETESC invited five communities to form environmental health committees – each consisting of 35 families.
Over 90 percent of representatives are family matriarchs, adult and older women who run not just the family kitchen, but the home generally.
Once the committees had been established, ETESC's local Environmental Health Promoters presented each of them with five environmental health projects that could be introduced into their community to improve their quality of life.
After receiving training on environmental health themes and analyzing their own communities, all five communities chose to introduce high-energy, low-smoke stoves.
A significant environmental effect
ETESC’s team of local Environmental Health Promoters travelled by foot to participants’ homes several times before and after the stoves’ introduction to weigh woodpiles, survey participants, and measure carbon monoxide.
On average, the improved stoves have reduced the amount of wood that participating families use for cooking fuel by more than half, from 17 kg (37.4 lbs) to 8 kg (17.6 lbs) per day. Over the course of one year, each family will save on average over three tons of wood, while the group as a whole will save over 400 tons. This saves trees and slows deforestation.
Decreased wood consumption also makes an economic difference to families. Local families either spend hours hauling wood, typically on their backs over long distances or buy it with their limited income. The reduced fuel consumption significantly lessens the amount of time and money spent procuring wood.
Installation of the stoves represents the first part of a three-year campaign in which communities will participate in regular environmental health workshops and choose projects to implement. The before-and-after data will be presented back to the participants, many of whom are not literate, through interactive games and demonstrations, to help inform their future planning.
PIH and ETESC’s three-year environmental health initiative is funded by Green Mountain Coffee Roasters.