Indoor Air Pollution Affects Billions, But There's No Easy Solution

When cooking is culture, asking 3 billion people to do things your way is asking a lot.

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Sep 4 2014, 2:35pm

Image: LiDandan/Flickr

Thinking in terms of polar ice caps and the eventual loss of Miami, it's easy to forget that the most immediate way that human beings are threatening their own environmental health happens in our own homes.

The World Health Organization estimates that 4.3 million die each year from being exposed to household air pollution, which comes from sources like cooking with solid fuels over an open flame or using a simple stove. As, by definition, the source is domestic, it affects women and children disproportionally.

It's easy to overlook here in the United States or in other wealthy countries, where the pollution caused by the way we light and heat our homes and cook our food is well out of sight for most of us.

But one third of the world's population is relying on burning plants or coal in order to eat, which introduces fine particulates into the air as well as carbon monoxide. Coal is big in China, and its indoor use has been found responsible for 420,000 deaths each year; wood and charcoal are more common in Africa and India; animal dung is used in pastoralist communities in high altitudes like Nepal and Afghanistan and also in savannas where wood is hard to come by, like Kenya and Ethiopia.

Cooking, and everything that goes with it, is culture

Thanks mostly to more efficient stoves, overall rates of exposure to household air pollution has declined in recent years, but according to a study just published in The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, the growing world population means that the number of people exposed remains stuck at 2.8 billion. 

An estimated 600-800 million households are at increased risk of illnesses such as respiratory tract infections, pneumonia, COPD, asthma, and lung cancer.

As any Michael Pollan reader worth their self-made salt will tell you, though, this is an issue that's central to a household. Cooking is culture, as is everything from the fuel used, to the design of homes, which is all involved in household air pollution. What's more, even people who want to use cleaner fuel can't because they're the poorest people in the world. 

So, yeah, solve global poverty, then find a way of respectfully communicating the advantages of a new way of living while throwing out the old way. That's the challenge.

Image: The Lancet

On the plus side, it means that improvements made on the household air pollution front have wide reverberations. For example, "in 2010, the US government, together with the UN Foundation, created a public—private partnership that incorporated the PCIA into the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, enhancing development and implementation of clean cooking solutions for millions of households, to reduce the effect of deforestation and climate change, and to empower women," the report states.

That's the plan, at least.

"NGOs familiar with the traditions and cultures of communities will be essential partners with businesses and governments when large-scale implementation programmes are planned," the study concludes. Only once the NGOs understand what's going on can they "contribute to improved, sustainable, household energy solutions that are acceptable to communities."

Of course what replaces these solid fuels is going to affect the air in another way, with associated energy and carbon costs of liquid gases or electricity fueled via coal-fired power plants. But there's hope that maybe the path to sustainable, green energy doesn't need to follow the lead established in the United States and elsewhere. 

Just as many Kenyans made waves by skipping web-based banking, instead going straight to mobile banking, maybe places that have historically been underserved by infrastructure can go to straight to solar-powered stoves and LED lights. There's an obvious upside.

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