Indoor pollution continues to blight developing world: UN report

Image: Morgana Wingard/USAID

A UN report shows pollution from old fashioned stoves accounts for around half of premature deaths in the developing world each year.

The UN Environment Programme paper says half of the world’s population still continue to burn wood, animal waste or coal to cook and heat their homes and in many cases, with poor ventilation.

Senior Research Fellow at the University of New South Wales and Senior Fellow at the Woolcock Institute for Medical Research Dr Christine Cowie says air pollution leads to a range of long-term health effects.

“Taken together outdoor and indoor air pollution lead to seven to eight million premature deaths and these two environmental hazards rival cigarette smoking as a major factor for deaths and disability,” she said.

“In terms of health effects exposure to both indoor and outdoor pollution is closely associated with cardiovascular diseases-so stroke-but pollution is also associated with lung cancers and also respiratory diseases and that can be both chronic and respiratory infections and that’s predominantly in young children.”

Tackling indoor pollution

Around the world less than 20 per cent of countries regulate open-air burning, but in developing countries a good deal of the problem comes from inside the home.

In southeast Asia the World Health Organisation estimates 75 per cent of premature deaths per year come from exposure to indoor pollution.

Yet more than 50 per cent of the population in this region still rely on solid fuels for cooking and heating.

Some countries like Singapore, Brunei and Malaysia have subsidies to encourage the uptake of less hazardous fuels like gas.

While poorer nations in the region like Cambodia have been helped by organisations like the Australian-based ATEC Biodigesters which has managed to turn manure, a traditional fuel source, into a gas that can be used for cooking.

ATEC’s Managing Director Ben Jeffrey says indoor pollution is one of the leading causes of death in Cambodia.

“Recent reports that have been released by the WHO and some local organisations has found that 15 000 people die each year in Cambodia from diseases linked to indoor air pollution which makes it one of the leading causes of premature death ,” he said.

“Quite sadly as well it’s highly focused towards the women who do the majority of the cooking – Cambodia is a country still very reliant on wood and as the main fuel source for cooking.”

Improving health by addressing need

Mr Jeffrey says there’s a gap in understanding between reactions from the pollution to long-term health problems.

But luckily a good deal of the population would like to upgrade their cooking systems anyway.

“The good news is what really does attract them is shifting away from wood cooking which blackens your kitchen, causes some short-term issues around your health, is time-consuming and dangerous towards more modern cooking as that’s seen as more aspirational and a better way of living,” he said.

“So just through that wanting to modernise and moving to a more convenient cooking source the ability to solve these longer-term health issues sort of progress themselves naturally as well.”

He says women in Cambodia spend hundreds of hours collecting wood and other cooking fuels and the biogas stoves his group sells helps them save time and do other things.

It’s a similar story in Ethiopia where World Vision supports the roll-out of cleaner stoves.

Their Director of Program Management Andrew Binns says perfectly good equipment won’t be taken up if it doesn’t meet the communities’ needs.

“A good example of is in our program in Ethiopia where they cook a large flat bread called injera and if you were to give them a normal type of what’s called a ‘rocket stove’ which is a more improved, fuel-efficient stove, they wouldn’t actually be able to cook their injera on it so you’d find they just wouldn’t use it,” he said.

“So we’ve worked with GIZ which is a German development corporation who have actually designed this kind of improved stove for them to cook injera which is about 50 per cent of what they cook in Ethiopia – so we really try to ensure the stoves that get distributed to end-users are stoves that will meet their cooking needs because they’ll actually end up using them in the long-run.”

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Friday, May 27 2016
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Featured in storyDr Christine Cowie - Senior research fellow, University of New South Wales and Senior Fellow, Woolcock Institute of Medical ResearchBen Jeffrey - Managing Director ATEC BiodigestersAndrew Binns - Director of Program Management, World Vision Australia

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