Clean household energy can save people’s lives
Air pollution in and outside of people’s homes is the world’s largest single environmental health risk. In India, major sources of air pollution in the home are tobacco smoke and the smoke from the use of solid fuels with inefficient and leaky cook stoves.
Millions of women in rural India spend several hours every day cooking meals on smoky ovens or open fires within their homes. Because cooking chores most often fall to women, they and the young children around them are the first victims of smoke-related acute and chronic respiratory and cardiovascular illnesses. According to WHO estimates, in 2012 there were close to 1.7 million premature deaths attributed to household air pollution from cooking in the South East Asia region with India shouldering the biggest burden. Most of these premature deaths were due to noncommunicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease and lung cancer. Indoor air pollution is also responsible for a significant number of acute respiratory illnesses in young children.
Health impact on women and children
Many women do not realize that the smoke emitted from the traditional clay or brick stoves called chulhas is putting their and their family members’ lives in danger. The solid fuels they use in these ovens include a mix of wood, coal, crop residue and cow-dung. Their smoke contains many dangerous pollutants such as fine particulate matter and carbon monoxide.
“Having an open fire in your kitchen is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour,” says Dr Kirk Smith, a Professor of Global Environmental Health from the University of California at Berkeley, who began to measure the air pollution exposure from cooking over open biomass cook stoves already in the 1970s. “Unfortunately, we have not made a lot of progress in the past decades and household air pollution is still the largest single health risk factor for Indian women and girls.”
An estimated 700 million people in India still rely on solid fuels and traditional cook stoves for domestic cooking despite their negative impact on peoples’ health. This figure has remained relatively constant over the last three decades despite efforts to improve access to cleaner energy sources such as gas and electricity also in rural areas.
“Most of the initial initiatives to improve cook stoves promoted in the 1980s and 1990s in India were focused on enhancing stove energy efficiency and not necessarily on reducing emissions or exposure to smoke. But evidence from an increasing number of studies in India is paving the way for health-centric interventions,” explains Prof. Kalpana Balakrishnan from the WHO Collaborating Centre for Occupational and Environmental Health at Sri Ramachandra University in Chennai.
New WHO guidelines on health impacts of household cooking
For over a decade, WHO has been monitoring the use of solid fuels for cooking and related death and disease burden. The Organization is working with countries to raise awareness and build capacity to address the health impacts of indoor air pollution. WHO is also contributing to global initiatives for improving energy access like the United Nations Secretary General’s Sustainable Energy for All (SE4All) initiative and the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.
“We are currently completing new indoor air quality guidelines for household fuel combustion,” says Dr Carlos Dora from the WHO Department of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health. “These guidelines will provide decision makers in countries and other partners with technical recommendations regarding fuels, cook stoves and household energy technologies with the best performance for protecting health.”
The new WHO guidelines will not only focus on the health impacts of household cooking in both developed and developing countries but also include recommendations on other home energy needs, including heating and lighting. They are expected to globally increase the use of clean household fuels and technologies that can protect the health of all family members.
India has already started revising the national standards for cook stoves under the leadership of the Ministry of New and Renewable Energy. New stoves need to be tested, and have to give proof that they are less polluting and more efficient than existing traditional and improved models. The promotion of the best available fuels and technologies can make an enormous public health impact – particularly for women and children.