Good, bad and toxic fuel woods: Trees on farms make the difference

Log fire - Timor. Photo courtesy of Prof Tony Cunningham

Log fire – Timor. Photo courtesy of Prof Tony Cunningham

Sitting next to a fire holds great pleasure for most of us. So does the smoky flavour wood-smoke brings to food. But daily use of firewood in poorly ventilated households can have hidden health consequences, particularly for women and children.

According to Professor Tony Cunningham of the School of Plant Biology, University of Western Australia, the 2.4 billion people in developing countries, notably in Africa and Asia, who use solid biomass fuels such as wood, charcoal and dung for cooking and heating are especially at risk.

Sometimes, he said, those risks are avoided through local knowledge.

“Euclea divinorum trees, for example, are widely known across southern Africa by their local name ‘ichitamuzi‘, which means ‘to split the family’. Local people believe that if the wood is used, it will cause arguments in the household. As a result, under customary law, this species is totally avoided as a fuel wood, even when wood is scarce,” he said.

“There more than a grain of truth in this belief,” explained Cunningham. “Not only does Euclea wood produce lots of smoke, it contains diterpenes that can have serious health consequences when inhaled.”

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Daisy Ouya

Daisy Ouya is a science writer and communications specialist with the World Agroforestry Centre (ICRAF). Over the past 15 years she has been packaging and disseminating scientific knowledge in the fields of entomology, agriculture, health, HIV/AIDS research, and marine science. Daisy is a Board-certified Editor in the Life Sciences ( and has a Masters’ degree in chemistry from the University of Connecticut, USA. Her BSc is from the University of Nairobi in her native Kenya. She has worked as a journal editor, science writer, publisher, and communications strategist with various organizations. She joined ICRAF in July 2012. Twitter: @daisyouya

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