Attacking a health danger bigger than tuberculosis, malaria and HIV combined.
One-third of the humans on earth — more than 2 billion people — need to light a fire in order to cook. That typically means burning wood, charcoal or animal dung. Indoors. And that means toxic carbon monoxide and particulates inevitably spew into kitchens and inside living spaces.
This little-known but massive global health scourge — officially called household air pollution — contributes to 4.3 million deaths every year, according to estimates by the World Health Organization. That’s a staggering number: toxic fumes from cooking fires trigger more deaths than tuberculosis, malaria and HIV combined.
“We are using technology to help solve a big social issue,” said Kazi Huque, CEO of Grameen Intel Social Business (GISB), a joint collaboration between Intel and the Bangladesh-based nonprofit Grameen Trust. GISB develops technologies that address major social issues facing billions of people in the world’s developing nations.
In small villages across India and Bangladesh, Grameen Intel is piloting a unique health wearable — it’s a brightly colored bangle — with a tiny built-in carbon monoxide (CO) sensor.
When the sensor detects carbon monoxide at a dangerous level, a red LED flashes. The bangle also produces a voice warning, customized to the wearer’s language, to open windows, open doors or get outside.
Women and expectant mothers in the developing world are at an especially high risk from foul indoor air. Women typically spend more time than men indoors or in kitchens. Babies can suffer low birth weight or other serious health complications from the effects of breathing indoor fire cooking fumes.
The bangle is currently called COEL for Carbon Monoxide Exposure Limiter.
Water resistant and made of molded gold, green or red plastic, its internal battery lasts for 10 months. It can be programmed to “speak” about 80 pregnancy wellness messages (in addition to CO alerts), and stores 32 megabytes of data. The device is not connected to the internet in order to maintain a lengthy battery life.
After initial trials in India, the Grameen Intel team in Dhaka will distribute more than 5,000 of the bangles to women in rural Bangladesh. Designed with engineering assistance from Intel’s New Technology Group, according to Huque, the wearable will be priced at approximate equivalent of $10 US.
“It’s beautiful…nobody would suspect that you’re wearing a piece of high-tech,” said Professor Muhammad Yunus. The Bangladeshi Nobel Peace Prize winner pioneered microcredit and microfinance for poor people in the developing world and founded the Grameen Bank.
As part of a commencement address in June at the University of California at San Diego, Yunus told students that he has been “very worried about maternal death in Bangladesh,” and that he has been looking to Grameen Intel to find ways for applying technology to tackle the problem.
It’s almost certain that in the face of 4 million lives lost annually due to indoor fire fumes, the benefits of the ultra-low-cost COEL wearable will be felt by people all across the developing world.
Feature photo courtesy Eiryanna Bennett.