Air Pollution - Silent Killer of Women
T V Padma
NEW DELHI, Jan 3, 2007 (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 pollution.
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 done."
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 substances.
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.
Typical poisonous 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 workshop.
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
Another 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.
The north-west corner of Yunan has the headwaters for Yangtze, Mekong, Salween
and Irrawady rivers and is one of the world's 10 biodiversity hotspots.
Most people 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.
The 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.