The World Health Organization estimates that 4.3 million people lose their lives every year due to indoor air pollution. A report from the U.N. Climate Panel has further stated that the “worldwide burden of human ill-health from climate change is relatively small compared with effects of other stressors” – between 30 and 150 times more people die from indoor air pollution than from global warming.
Around the world, 3 billion people still cook food and heat their homes using solid fuels – such as wood, charcoal, coal, dung and crop wastes – on open fires or traditional stoves. These inefficient cooking and heating practices contribute to a dangerously high level of indoor air pollution, including fine particles and carbon monoxide. In poorly ventilated homes, the amount of smoke produced can exceed acceptable levels for fine particles by 100-fold.
Since indoor air pollution is mostly attributed to activities in the kitchen, women and young children who “spend the most time near the domestic hearth” are especially exposed to the health dangers – acute and chronic respiratory conditions (like pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease,) lung cancer, ischemic heart disease, stroke and cataracts. Other risks include adverse pregnancy complications, tuberculosis, low birthweight, perinatal mortality, asthma, middle ear infections and cancers of the upper aero-digestive tract and cervix. These negative health effects are only exacerbated in developing countries.
The cooking and heating practices that are responsible for indoor air pollution are indirectly linked to other health hazards as well. Poorly lit homes and kitchens may contribute to deaths, lifelong disabilities and disfigurement from fire-related burns (which are common when using solid fuel and kerosene stoves.) In low and middle-income countries, kerosene is widely used and stored in soft drink or milk bottles, causing many young children to be poisoned from unintentional ingestion.
Indoor air pollution has adverse environmental effects as well. The reliance on wood fuel can heighten deforestation and put “considerable pressure on forests,” leading to forest degradation and a loss of habitat and biodiversity. Additionally, using biomass and coal stoves is inefficient, and a large percentage of energy is lost as products of incomplete combustion. Incomplete combustion produces pollutants like black carbon and methane, both of which have a significant impact on climate change.
In addition to creating indoor air pollution, traditional biomass fuels and appliances limit the time available for families to concentrate on generating income and educating their children, contributing to a “vicious cycle of poverty and reliance on polluting.” For instance, those who rely on inefficient fuels may spend a large portion of the day on fuel collection, and homes with limited access to a clean and reliable source of lighting would not be able to pursue economic and educational opportunities outside of daylight hours.
To reduce exposure to indoor air pollution, solid fuels should be replaced by cleaner and more efficient fuels: liquid petroleum gas, biogas, producer gas, electricity and solar power. However, biomass is still the most realistic fuel source for poor communities due to the scarcity of alternative fuels. In those areas, indoor air pollution could be downsized through improved stoves and ventilation.
— Kristy Liao