WHEN Hou Jiwen was born 52 years ago in Hehua Village in southwest China’s Guizhou Province, his house, like many, had a coal-fired clay stove for cooking.
Nobody gave the stove a second thought but, even then, it was changing the course of Hou’s life.
It was only after he married in his 20s and had a son that the stove’s poisonous legacy became apparent.
Hou’s waist and legs began to ache. The bones of his legs became crooked, and he could hardly stand.
Hou had contracted fluorosis, which is endemic in 13 provinces and municipalities where about 33.2 million people live, said Bai Huqun, vice director of the disease control bureau under the Health Ministry.
Guizhou has had the most fluorosis patients. In that province alone, the illness prevails in 35 counties, where nearly 10 million people have dental fluorosis and 1 million have deformed bones due to fluorosis, like Hou.
Despairing of their poverty, his wife left the family 18 years ago, followed by his son, who went away to work in 2004 at the age of 15 and never came back.
Hou lives on a government subsidy of about 17 yuan a month (US$2.50) and grows vegetables on a tiny plot of land. He uses a wooden stick to walk, and sometimes he’s feeling well enough to tend his little farm. Often, his neighbors have to help him.
According to local health authorities, Hou’s illness resulted from the cooking range. In Guizhou, where about 57 percent of the rural households use coal as their major cooking fuel, the coal has a high fluorine content.
Fluorosis has been a problem for humans for ages. Scientists have found it in fossilized skeletons from 200,000 years ago.
Since most clay stoves in southwest China don’t have chimneys, there’s no way for the fluorine to disperse. It’s concentrated in the smoke from cooking, so people breathe it, and it pollutes what’s cooked in the stove, Deng Tao, vice head of the health bureau of Bijie area, said.
Guizhou started a “stove revolution” in 2004. As of the end of 2008, 82,000 households in the Bijie area of Guizhou had new stoves and another 272,000 had their stoves upgraded.
The new stoves pipe the smoke out of the room.
Yang Shunzhou, a 52-year-old farmer from Luozhuang Village in Dafang County, changed his stove this year.
“My arms have ached for more than 10 years and I took for granted that it was rheumatism,” he said. “I didn’t know that we could be poisoned by the cooking range.”