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Kitchen fuels greater source of air pollution in rural South Asia

M. Dinesh Varma
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Long-term exposure to emissions from incomplete combustion of firewood or charcoal a risk for developing lung disorders: expert

If you thought that rural communities are any better off from the threat of air pollution because they do not have dust-bowl conditions, carbon monoxide emissions from vehicles or methane gas from garbage landfills endemic to the urban landscape, think again.

Emerging scientific data and medical evidence show that rural populations, especially those in South Asia, suffer health risks that could be much greater than previously perceived from a single source of pollution — solid fuels used in the kitchen.

Household Air Pollution (HAP) from solid fuels has emerged as the single most important risk factor for a host of disorders ranging from low birth weight, acute lower respiratory infections in children, Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, lung cancer, asthma, TB and heart disease.

“As HAP exposures get more clearly mapped, it is evident that the rural poor communities in developing regions account for a majority of the estimated 2.8 billion people in the world whose reliance on solid fuels is an everyday reality,” said Dr. Kalpana Balakrishnan, environmental scientist and head of the WHO Collaborating Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at Sri Ramachandra University (SRU).

Dr. Balakrishnan, a member of the International Science Advisory Panel of the forum - Climate and Clean Air Coalition, is also the lead author for the exposure assessment section of the WHO’s International Air Quality Guidelines. Her research group at SRU developed the HAP exposure-health risk model that drove the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010 involving several international experts.

GBD study

When it came out a few months ago, the GBD 2010 assessment estimated some of the highest burdens from household air pollution for South Asia and Africa. “Especially striking was the fact that in many countries in these regions, HAP was ranked the highest among a range of other risk factors examined, including high blood pressure, smoking, dietary risk factors,” said Dr. Balakrishnan, who had advocated decisive global action on the HAP front at the World Health Assembly summit at the United Nations in Geneva in May. In India, the Census 2011 data show that an estimated 67 per cent of households — about 750 million homes — rely on solid fuels. “Though the percentage has declined from the high of 80 per cent of the previous census, the flip side is that the absolute numbers have largely remained the same because of simultaneous population growth,” she said.

Solid fuel dependency

An estimated 25 per cent of urban households in the lower economic strata also depend on solid fuels. These estimates hold good for the kitchen scenario in Tamil Nadu as well where cooking devices used are inefficient and kitchens, poorly-ventilated. “Long-term exposure to emissions from incomplete combustion of firewood or charcoal is a definite risk for developing lung disorders,” said Dr. R. Narasimhan, respiratory physician and chairman, Respiratory Research Foundation of India. Given that the treatment challenge of lung disorders was that progression of disease was without any symptom for several years, a smoker or an asthmatic who is exposed to these pollutants could develop lung impairment much more rapidly, Dr. Narasimhan pointed out.

“HAP is not a purely indoor concern as emissions spill over to the ambient outdoors. In villages, it plays on underlying disease rates and aggravates the vulnerabilities for specific sub-groups. In terms of absolute burdens, men are impacted as much although in terms of relative burdens it ranks the highest for women and girls,” said Dr. Balakrishnan.

This is why environmental scientists are pressing for rural areas to be included in the ambit of outdoor air quality regulation. “This is where the soon-to-be-released WHO guidelines that specify emission standards for all combustion devices, including advanced biomass combustion stoves, could be an important touchstone for policy and research into the future,” Dr. Balakrishnan said.

The WHO is to release guidelines specifying emission standards for all combustion devices, including advanced biomass combustion stoves

* Initially an erroneous map went with this article. The map has been replaced.

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