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Indoor air pollution putting billions at risk, report states

Lancet study claims use of wood or coal fuels for cooking in the home is putting nearly three billion people at risk of ill health and early death

Indoor household air pollution caused by using plant-based or coal fuel for cooking, heating and lighting is putting almost three billion people around the world at risk of ill health and early death, according to an academic study led by UK and USA scientists.

Published in the Lancet Respiratory Medicine Journal earlier this month (September 2), the study claims that a third of the world’s population – mainly in Africa and Asia – use plant-based solid fuels such as wood, charcoal or coal, in order to cook or heat and light their homes.

Wood, coal,

Wood, charcoal or coal stoves for cooking and heating in the home can cause high levels of air pollution in the home, the Lancet study claims

However, these fuels are often smoky and used on an open fire or simple stove, which can lead to high levels of air pollution in poorly ventilated areas of the home.

And, the report – Household Air Pollution Commission – explains that studies in India have found that in some areas household air pollution is so high that it can actually increase outdoor (ambient) air pollution.

This, it added, can lead to pollution levels more than three times higher than a typical London street and well-above World Health Organisation (WHO) levels, according to the study.

Led by Professor Stephen Gordon from the Liverpool School of Tropical Medicine UK and Professor William Martin from Ohio State University, USA, the study concludes that an estimated 600-800 million families worldwide are at increased risk of illness such as respiratory tract infections, pneumonia, COPD, asthma, and lung cancer.

Estimates suggest that household air pollution killed 3·5 to 4 million people in 2010. And, although overall rates of exposure to household air pollution have been declining slowly in recent years, population growth means that the number of people exposed has remained stagnant, at around 2·8 billion people worldwide.

The report’s authors suggest that both national and international efforts to tackle household air pollution “have thus far been insufficient”, with low public awareness of the risks of cooking with solid fuels in “poorly unventilated homes”.

In addition, the scientists say that the women and children living in poverty who are most affected by household air pollution are also likely to have poor access to healthcare – especially the complex and expensive treatments required respiratory illnesses and cancer caused by household air pollution.

Professor Gordon said: “Although a number of clean cooking technologies – such as advanced cook stoves, LPG or solar power systems – exist, providing affected homes with cleaner ways to cook, heat, and light their homes with biomass fuel will not be the long term solution.”

“In communities where solid fuel cooking methods are currently the norm, cleaner fuel and cooking methods need to be at least as affordable, efficient, and long-lasting as the traditional style methods they replace.  They also need to be fit for the different cultures and regions in which they’re used – if families only partially adopt cleaner cooking methods, using them alongside more polluting technologies, we are potentially looking at an expensive failure, and no reduction in the millions of people currently at risk from household air pollution.”

According to Professor Martin: “All of the evidence we examined in this Commission points to a serious need for improved commitment to tackling the problem of household air pollution. Scientists and health professionals in countries where household air pollution is still widespread need to work with governments and international health agencies to increase awareness of the huge toll that it is exacting on the population. There are many gaps in our knowledge of how to effectively measure and prevent household air pollution, but this problem cannot be solved until the global community recognises the scale of this problem and commits to coordinated and concerted action.”

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