Indoor Air Pollution - Silent Killer of
T V Padma
NEW DELHI, Jan 3 (IPS) - Women and young girls coughing and
choking as they cook food over traditional stoves that burn wood, leaves or dung
is a common a sight in poor homes across Asia, Africa and Latin America. But no
one notices the deleterious effects.
Over 1.5 million females die
prematurely every year by inhaling poisonous fumes as they cook or heat their
homes with these organic fuels but catch little attention from governments,
policy experts, scientists and medical experts.
Almost three billion
people burn traditional fuels indoors for cooking and heating and their numbers
are expected to "rise substantially by 2020," John Mitchell, coordinator of the
partnership for clean indoor air at the United States Environmental Protection
Agency told IPS at an international meeting on better air quality held in
Yogyakarta, in December.
Of these, more than 1.6 million persons, mainly
women and children, die prematurely each year from breathing high levels of
indoor smoke. This is twice as many deaths as estimated due to outdoor
Indoor air pollution could lead to an epidemic of breathing
problems that could kill faster than SARS or the bird flu, warned Kirk Smith,
professor of public health at the University of California, Berkeley.
"Will there be a massive emergency meeting in Geneva of international
agencies and donors with unlimited authority and funds to take action?" Smith
asked participants at the meeting. "The answer is no -- indeed nothing will be
Ironically, the conference itself focused on outdoor air
pollution and the final statement issued on Dec. 15 did not refer to it.
‘Biomass' or traditional fuels of biological origin, such as wood, twigs
and leaves, account for 9.3 percent of the global energy consumed, according to
the 2004 World Energy Assessment report. The reason they are so dangerous is
that they do not burn completely --or in scientific parlance, their combustion
efficiency is less than 100 percent.
"A traditional wood-fired Indian
cooking stove can be a toxic waste factory," said Smith. According to him,
typical biomass cook stoves convert 6-20 percent of the carbon to toxic
Globally, indoor smoke ranks tenth as a risk factor for
global burden of disease, according to a 2002 World Health Organisation report.
But it ranks third for the Indian burden of disease.
pollutants in fuel smoke produced by poor burning include small particles of
carbon monoxide and nitrogen dioxide, and substances containing carbon and
hydrogen (hydrocarbons) and sometimes chlorine.
In fact, about 5 percent
of outdoor air pollution is due to smoke from indoors escaping, said Mitchell.
"Indoor air pollution is a cross-cutting issue" said Mitchell. Cutting
down trees for fuel leads to deforestation and desertification and is linked to
greenhouse gas emissions and climate change. But it is also a gender issue as it
affects the health of women who are most exposed to the indoor smoke and are
often the last in the family to avail of medical treatment; and it affects
children's health causing respiratory problems.
Yet, indoor air
pollution has been largely ignored by scientists. There have been too few
measurements worldwide to determine exact levels of exposures or link to
specific disease patterns, said Smith
For example, of the 2-3 million
deaths in children under five years due to infections in the lower breathing
tract, there are estimates of percent deaths due to malnutrition, diarrhoea,
genetic susceptibility to diseases, non-immunisation against vaccine-preventable
diseases. But there are no estimates of how many deaths were due to burning
solid fuels in homes.
Preliminary data from an ongoing trial on 530
households using open fire stoves for cooking and with a pregnant women or child
under four months in Guatemala were revealing. Young children in households
cooking over open wood fires had serious respiratory ailments compared to those
in homes that used improved woodstoves with chimneys, Smith reported at the
Once a chimney was fitted to the stove, polluting fine
particles reduced by 90 percent, Smith said.
An ongoing series of
studies at four locations in India, funded by Fogarty International, is
addressing the question of whether exposure to indoor smoke from solid fuels
aggravates tuberculosis. It is expected to complete collecting data by the end
of next year.
More encouraging news came from the Partnership for Clean
Indoor Air (PCIA) that was launched at the World Summit on Sustainable
Development in Johannesburg in 2002. Over 120 partners from public and private
sector are now working under it in 67 countries.
PCIA tries to improve
health, livelihood and the quality of life through reduced exposure to air
pollution, primarily among women and children, in developing countries. This is
through an increase in the use of clean, reliable, affordable, efficient and
safe cooking and heating practices at homes.
PCIA said its 10 pilot
projects in Africa, Asia and Latin America have educated 1.3 million households.
The result is 70,000 homes using clean and fuel-efficient practices and 700 new,
small businesses producing and marketing improved technologies.
success story came from China, where The Nature Conservancy (TNC), a
biodiversity conservation non-profit organisation based in Yunan province, which
works on conservation and community development issues, has taken a lead in
using alternative energy to improve indoor air quality.
corner of Yunan has the headwaters for Yangtze, Mekong, Salween and Irrawady
rivers and is one of the world's 10 biodiversity hotspots.
in the region rely on firewood for cooking and heating, but this not only
destroys the local forest but also causes serious health problems due to indoor
air pollution. TNC initiated an alternative energy programme in 2001 to protect
the rich biodiversity in northwest Yunan and use energy strategies.
project developed more efficient stoves and expanded renewable energy sources
such as biogas digesters, solar water heaters and micro hydropower generators,
said Xia Zuzhang, director of operations at the TNC programme.
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