The Kerosene Problem: An open letter for better research - Acumen

The Kerosene Problem: An open letter for better research

By Donn Tice and Darin Kingston on July 16, 2013

At d.light, we hear time and time again how relieved our customers are to rid their homes of toxic kerosene smoke: they feel it burning their eyes and lungs, they see it covering their homes in soot. They – and we – understand that this smoke is bad for them and bad for their homes. But seeing and knowing from experience is not always sufficient in our increasingly data-driven world, especially when it comes to policy formulation.

d.light is an Acumen-supported social enterprise whose purpose is to create a brighter future – by designing, manufacturing and distributing solar light and power products throughout the developing world – for more than 2.2 billion people living without access to reliable power. We believe that despite the scale of this challenge, far too little research is being done around kerosene-for-lighting use in the developing world. Data quantifying the specific ills of kerosene usage and the corresponding benefits of replacing this ubiquitous fuel is slim. As a result, the global community does not have the information it needs to fully mobilize promotion of life-changing alternatives like portable solar lanterns.

d.light is proud to be in an industry with so many other dedicated companies and together we are making great strides – d.light alone is responsible for bringing new freedoms to over 19 million people in the developing world. But the public sector can also play a critical role by infusing catalytic funding into structural hurdles, such as mass consumer education campaigns or government-level advocacy around solar tariff reductions. Others working in our sector have similarly lamented the dearth of high quality research around kerosene-for-lighting – a visit to LuminaNET’s discussion forum (a social network for the off-grid lighting community) demonstrates this point quickly. And to be fair, there has been some progress on the environmental detriments lately. For example, a recent Environmental Science and Technology article presents evidence that as much as 10% of kerosene smoke is pure black carbon (soot in layperson’s terms), which is 20 times higher than previous studies had found. A subsequent article in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Atmospheres demonstrates that black carbon surpasses methane as the second greatest contributor to global warming. A less technical read on kerosene and black carbon is available from Brookings.

But with regards to human health, a better understanding of the damage done by kerosene-for-lighting usage seems distressingly absent from research agendas. Take, for example, the recent Global Burden of Disease study – arguably the single best source of data on quantifying and attributing mortality and morbidity rates to specific risk factors. Kerosene smoke for lighting, which minimally affects an estimated 2 billion lives across the developing world each day, is omitted from their list of assessed risks.

As we see it, there are a few key questions with significant evidence gaps:

  1. What is the scale of the “kerosene problem,” including not only off-grid households but also those who are technically on-grid but for experience highly unreliable electricity?
  2. What is the resulting scope and severity of damage to global health?
  3. What is the resulting scope and severity of damage to our planet?

Thus, d.light is making it a part of our agenda to advocate for more, better research. As part of this effort, we take the opportunity here to address an open letter to the research team behind the Global Burden of Disease study, which urges that kerosene-for-lighting be added to their list of risk factors. But as there are other global research initiatives – such as those undertaken by the World Health Organization – that are similarly positioned to consider this vastly under-acknowledged household risk, we hope they will read this as a call to action on their part as well.

We thank Acumen for this platform and hope that readers will share this post with your friends and colleagues in the research community.


To the Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation researchers and research affiliates,

Your work on the Global Burden of Disease study constitutes an invaluable contribution to the global community. However, d.light design – a social enterprise working to empower lives through solar light and power products – believes there is something missing from your comparative assessment of risk factors. This component of the study very rightly included household air pollution but wrongly considered only solid fuel for cooking. A significant source of household air pollution has thus been ignored: fuel for lighting, specifically kerosene.

With an estimated 2.2 billion people living with unreliable or no electricity in the developing world, the scale of households reliant on toxic fuel for lighting is on par with those burning solid fuel for cooking. The hypothesis that people are exposed to greater volumes of noxious pollutants through biomass for cooking than they are through kerosene for lighting—often assumed because the former produces more visible smoke than the latter—is actually unfounded. This theory does not taking into account variables such as the user’s proximity to smoke (often greater with lanterns), the duration of this proximity (often longer with lanterns), smoke concentration (potentially greater with lanterns because of predominantly indoor usage), or cautiousness in the face of perceived risk (often greater with cookstoves because the smoke is more visible).

It has been demonstrated that exposure to kerosene lantern smoke can lead to a fine particulate matter concentration as much as ten times greater than the World Health Organization’s health guidelines for ambient exposure (see Apple et al in Indoor Air 2010; 20: 399–411). Moreover, research indicates links with the same deadly diseases as from solid fuel cooking smoke, such as tuberculosis and cancer. More recent research has established that 10% of kerosene smoke is pure black carbon—a figure that is 20 times higher than previous estimates (see Lim et al in Environmental Science & Technology 2012; 46 (24): 13531-13538). That black carbon is also linked to cardiopulmonary morbidity and mortality further underlines the need to include kerosene smoke in a comprehensive global study such as yours.

“Primary source of lighting” is a very common topic in census and household living standards surveys throughout the developing world, and so it should be quite possible to estimate exposure distributions among global populations. d.light strongly urges the next round of Global Burden of Disease researchers to give this pervasive household killer its due attention so that future global health policies are more robustly informed.


Donn Tice, CEO & Chairman
Darin Kingston, Social Performance Manager
On behalf of d.light design

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