Around 3 billion people worldwide cook in their homes over fires fueled by everything from wood and eucalyptus leaves to dried cow dung and quinoa and every year, the World Health Organization estimates, 4 million people die because of the smoke.
The problem is the smoke from many home cooking fires is not properly vented outside.
The Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health is working to develop a safer way to cook for more than half of the world's population.
The project aims to decrease the amount of harmful smoke residents of rural communities can be exposed to using cookstoves in thatched huts with little ventilation.
Working with Ken Banks, a local developer and construction contractor, Hopkins engineers designed a hood and chimney to transport the harmful smoke out of houses.
The university's engineering department is developing the design, aiming to get it patented and create a prototype, Banks said.
The Hopkins researchers have been working since 2009 in Puno, Peru, a city whose people live in thatched huts and cook food by burning dung, wood or dried crops -- what scientists call biomass fuel.
When Peruvians in rural communities cook, they are surrounded by thick, choking, often toxic smoke.
"There's a lot of smoke," said Suzanne Pollard, a doctoral student in international health at Hopkins who worked on the project in Peru for nine months in 2010. "You feel like you're drowning in the smoke."
She likened cooking there to what it would be like if Americans barbecued inside their homes.
Not only are the conditions uncomfortable, but they can lead to serious health problems, particularly related to the respiratory system.
Exposure to biomass fuels may result in obstruction of the lungs, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, pneumonia, high blood pressure, bronchitis and other potentially fatal complications, said William Checkley, principal investigator of the study and an assistant professor of medicine and international health at Hopkins.
In her Peru research, Pollard gathered information on how long people cooked, what they used to cook, what their kitchens looked like and which homes had chimneys.
She found that 20 percent of homes surveyed had a chimney. Otherwise, there were stoves with no way of releasing the smoke, save for a few with small inches-wide windows.
The great thing, she said, about Banks' design is that it has the potential to be used with any type of stove, something that will make it more acceptable to the users.
Some homes had improved stoves, but the occupants didn't use them for a variety of reasons, including that they weren't as efficient, didn't heat up quickly enough or weren't as easy to load with wood as the traditional adobe or clay cookstoves.
Banks' idea "interferes less with the way people are used to cooking," Pollard said.
The cookstoves are responsible for a huge number of deaths and illnesses in the world, she said. "Finding a solution ... could have a huge public health impact," Pollard said.
If successful, Banks' hood and chimney design could greatly improve the health of women and children in rural communities, as more than 90 percent of rural communities around the world use biomass fuels as a source for cooking, Checkley said.
Banks, who owns Banks Development and Banks Contracting and regularly contributes to Baltimore foundations as a philanthropist, got involved in the process through his work on the advisory board to the public health school.
In March 2013, Banks and about 15 other board members went to see the project in Peru, and one of the researchers asked Banks for help.
The doctors and scientists didn't know anything about construction. Banks jumped in and took a look at their designs.
He said to help solve a worldwide problem "is an amazing opportunity for any individual."
The researchers and Banks began to work on the design for a hood and chimney system; the process had a "plethora" of problems to face before coming up with a solution, he said.
Banks and the researchers had to consider factors such as the cost to make the device, what materials to use, where to have it made and how to avoid using electricity.
Ideally, the hood and chimney would be made out of sheet metal, easy to make without power tools and manufactured in Peru, Banks said.
He plans to go back to the country to see the prototypes installed and observe how they work.
Before Banks got involved, researchers had tried a few other methods to collect smoke, but none worked as well as they wished, Checkley said.
"It's a complicated problem, mainly because it involves multiple points of intervention," he said. "I think we're moving closer to" a solution.
Checkley said Banks understands the magnitude of the problem and the impact it could make at a global level. Banks also contributed some funding for making the prototype.
"It's people like Ken Banks who are committed philanthropists interested in global health problems who can make a difference in it," Checkley said.
Banks, 62, sits on several boards, many with missions related to public health. Though public health may seem far from Banks' professional focus on construction and development, he said he personally has "a focus on public health and medicine."
"I'm committed to physical fitness, it's been a lifelong endeavor for me," he said.
Through his work with the cookstove project, Banks said he wants to set an example and show people that it's possible to do the right thing.
"Why not get involved in something?" he said.
"Put your hands on a project and make this world a little bit of a better place."
An earlier version misstated the field of health for William Checkley and Suzanne Pollard. The Sun regrets the error.Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun