Smoky fires raise risk of respiratory diseases, early death

Chronic lung diseases are associated with solid fuel use for cooking. File Photo: S.S. Kumar

Chronic lung diseases are associated with solid fuel use for cooking. File Photo: S.S. Kumar  

Some three billion people — a third of the world's population — are exposed to “toxic amounts” of pollution produced when households burn plant material, animal dung and coal for cooking, lighting and heating. As a result, these individuals are at a greater risk of respiratory diseases and an early death, according to an assessment just published.

“Air pollution is the number one environmental cause of death in the world, with HAP [household air pollution] being a major contributor to this burden,” said a commission established by The Lancet Respiratory Medicine, whose findings appear in the journal.

A previous study attributed 3.5-4 million deaths that occurred worldwide each year to household air pollution.

Some 600 to 800 million households in low and middle income countries rely on smoky fires from solid fuels for their domestic needs. The commission, with experts from a number of countries, including India, examined the effects that fine particles and chemicals in the smoke have on airways and lungs of people.

“Worldwide, respiratory health effects account for nearly a half of the overall deaths and disabilities” from household air pollution, the commission noted. The smoke from solid fuels heightened the risk of respiratory infections. The burning of coal could give rise to respiratory tract cancers. Chronic lung diseases are associated with solid fuel use for cooking.

Women and children living in severe poverty had the greatest exposure to emissions from domestic fires, it pointed out.

A large proportion of the Indian population — some 700-million-plus people — living in both urban and rural areas continued to rely on solid fuels, observed Kalpana Balakrishnan of the Department of Environmental Health Engineering at Sri Ramachandra University in Chennai, a member of the commission. Over a million deaths each year in this country could be attributed to household air pollution, she told this correspondent.

The commission’s report cited research carried out by Prof. Balakrishnan and her colleagues that showed how burning of solid fuels by households raised outdoor pollution in Indian villages to three times the level on the streets of London in the U.K.

Cooking is by far the greatest source of polluting emissions to household air pollution. “The challenge of changing how the world cooks is enormous,” the commission remarked.

All the available evidence indicated that improved cook-stoves using solid fuels would not reduce pollution levels sufficiently for health benefits to be realised, according to Prof. Balakrishnan. For India, the current scientific thinking was to “leapfrog ahead” to cleaner fuels such as gas and electricity, she said.

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Printable version | Apr 4, 2020 12:34:43 PM |

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