Recently I bought a fake fireplace for my apartment in Seattle. It's electric; it does not have to be vented to the outside; you simply plug it in and admire the "flames." These may not be real but they look very, very real. You have to sit and watch carefully for a few minutes before you realize that the flickering patterns repeat themselves regularly. The fireplace can be set to throw heat or not, which is an improvement over the real fireplace in my Rochester house, which regularly sends the thermostat sky-high so that heat shuts down in the rest of the house. Very cold bedsheets and icy bathroom floors.
I love the look and convenience of the artificial fireplace. Now I discover that I have a third reason to love it: health. The latest issue of THE NEW YORKER has a long article by Burkhard Bilger on fire. Actually, it's about the long search -- over thirty years now -- for the perfect stove for Third World countries. This stove would be cheap, easy to use, fuel efficient, adaptable to local cookery, durable, and clean-burning. So far no one has found it, although the article details some current candidates, one of which may be funded by the Gates Foundation.
The average Third World cooking fire produces as much carbon dioxide as a car, and also a miasma of chemicals in the smoke. The leading killer of children world-wide is pneumonia. Careful studies of a village in the remote Andes have shown a direct and startling correlation between houses supplied with stove prototypes and those cooking on traditional open hearths. The walls of these houses were equipped with sensors and the inhabitants given periodic medical exams. Children who inhaled the least smoke (in the houses with stoves) were 65% to 85% less likely to develop pneumonia. And, of course, not only children develop pneumonia. "In a country like India," the articles states, "stoves could save more than two million lives in ten years."
I have friends who disparage my fake fireplace. (Yes, they're still friends). But at least I am not inhaling creosote, benzene, styrene, formaldehyde, and dioxin -- all components of sweet-smelling wood smoke. An unvented open fire produces three hundred times the EPA's standard for clean air as defined by micrograms of fine particles per cubic meter. About half the world cooks on such fires.
The stove project is fascinating. In its engineering, its tenacity, its many requirements, its progress. And Bilger can really write. This one is well worth your consideration.