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Indoor Air Pollution Kills Millions Annually

  • Lisa Schlein

A woman uses firewood to cook food in her home, in Sapay, Nepal, about 900 kilometers from Kathmandu, Feb. 17, 2014.

A woman uses firewood to cook food in her home, in Sapay, Nepal, about 900 kilometers from Kathmandu, Feb. 17, 2014.

The World Health Organization warns that millions of people every year, mainly in developing countries, are dying from indoor air pollution caused by the use of dangerous fuels and cookstoves in the home. So the organization is issuing new guidelines aimed at reducing health-damaging household pollutants.

The World Health Organization reports nearly 3 billion people have no access to clean fuels and technologies for cooking, heating and lighting. It says more than 7 million people die from exposure to indoor or outdoor air pollution each year. Of that number, WHO reports some 4.3 million people, mainly in developing countries, die from household air pollution emitted by rudimentary biomass and coal cookstoves.

WHO's new guidelines on reducing these indoor pollutants are based on new findings that the use of toxic fuels in inefficient stoves, space heaters, or lamps are to blame for many of those premature deaths.

Harmful fuel

Carlos Dora, coordinator in WHO's Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, said people should not use unprocessed coal and kerosine indoors. He said opening a window or door to let out the toxic emissions will not remedy the situation. It only will serve to pollute the outdoors.

“You cannot expect that a bit of ventilation is going to get rid of this. It is really about very clean technologies and clean fuels. And the fuel story has not been stressed enough so far in the global debate," said Dora. "So, that is the new thing. We should be going for clean fuels. We should be avoiding coal. We should be avoiding kerosene and we should be going for the solar, the LPG [liquified petroleum gas], the ethanol-the solutions that we know exist that can address a big proportion of this issue.”

WHO says indoor pollution leads to premature death from stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, childhood pneumonia and lung cancer. Women and girls are the main victims.

WHO says these diseases primarily are caused by high levels of fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide released by the burning of solid fuels. These include wood, coal, animal dung, crop waste and charcoal.

Inexpensive alternatives

The UN Health Organization finds more than 95 percent of households in sub-Saharan Africa rely on solid fuels for cooking. It says huge populations in India, China and Latin American countries, such as Guatemala and Peru, also are at risk.

Nigel Bruce, Professor of Public Health at the University of Liverpool, said work is under way to develop good cookstoves and other technologies to burn biomass and other fuels in a more efficient way.

“There are already multiple technologies available for use in clean fuels. There is really quite an effective and reasonably low-cost ethanol stove that is made by Domestic that is now being tested out," said Bruce. "It has been tested out in a number of African countries and we do report results from that in the guidelines. LPG cook is obviously widely available and efforts are under way to make those efficient. Another interesting development is electric induction stoves."

WHO experts note some new technologies that offer safe cheap solutions to the problem of indoor air pollution already are on the market. They point to induction stoves being sold in India for about $8.00, and solar lamps that can be bought in Africa for less than $1.00.

But this, the agency said, is just a start. It is urging a rapid scale-up in the use of clean fuels and in access to cleaner and more modern cooking and heating appliances, as well as lamps, in developing countries.

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