Burn to kill: Wood ash a silent killer in Africa

Sci Total Environ. 2020 Dec 15:748:141316. doi: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2020.141316. Epub 2020 Aug 2.


Aside the emissions, burning of wood in traditional cookstoves (TCs) also generates substantial amount of ash containing hazardous pollutants such as polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs) and toxic metals. But, their concentrations in the ash, particularly in Africa where over 70% of the population utilize TCs, remain unknown. Here, we determined concentrations of sixteen PAHs and eleven heavy metals in ashes from twelve different African TCs, comprising six three-stone fires (TSFs) and six built-in-place cookstoves (BIPCs), burning common African wood species under real world situation. For each TC, ash samples were collected for six consecutive days (Monday-Saturday), and a total of seventy-two daily samples were collected from January-June 2019. Ash yields were measured gravimetrically, and concentrations of the pollutants were determined following standard analytical protocols. The results were used alongside secondary data (annual fuelwood consumption, African fuelwood densities, population proportion using fuelwood and surface human population density) to estimate annual tonnage, exposure potential and risk to health in Africa, using Monte Carlo simulation technique. The ash yields from all TCs studied exceeded 1% on dry weight basis, indicating that ash is a major waste by-product of wood combustion in TCs. TSFs produced more ash (5.7 ± 0.7%) than BIPCs (3.4 ± 1.0%). Concentrations of As, Cd, Hg and Pb in ashes were significantly higher (α = 0.05) for TSFs than BIPCs. In contrast, concentrations of PAHs were higher in ashes from BIPCs than TSFs. Assuming ash consumption rates range from 250 to 500 mg/day for young children weighing 10 to 30 kg, the upper dose (μg/kg-day) of Pb (0.2-3.9) or Σ16PAHs (0.02-0.34), for instance, surpasses the 0.3 μg/kg-day of Pb or PAH recognized as causing adverse effects in children, indicating a concern. The top five countries with the highest annual tonnage or exposure potential to toxic pollutants are Nigeria>Ethiopia>DR-Congo>Tanzania>Uganda, or Rwanda>Burundi>Uganda>Nigeria>Guinea-Bissau, respectively.

Keywords: Biomass combustion; Built-in-place; Heavy metals; Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs); Three stone fire (TSF); Traditional cookstove.

MeSH terms

  • Burns*
  • Child
  • Child, Preschool
  • Coal Ash / analysis
  • Ethiopia
  • Guinea-Bissau
  • Humans
  • Incineration
  • Nigeria
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons* / analysis
  • Rwanda
  • Tanzania
  • Uganda


  • Coal Ash
  • Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons