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Indoor Pollution from Cooking Fires Kills 1.5 Million People Annually

From Larry West,
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Cleaner Fuels, Modern Stoves, Could Save Millions of Lives

More than half the world’s population—about 3 billion people—cook their meals with wood, dung, coal and other solid fuels over open fires or on primitive stoves inside their homes, and that simple act is killing 1.5 million people every year, according to a report by the World Health Organization.

Indoor Pollution Kills Millions Every Year
Cooking with solid fuels on open fires or traditional stoves creates high levels of indoor air pollution, which is a major risk factor for pneumonia among children and chronic respiratory disease among adults. Indoor smoke contains many pollutants that can damage health, such carbon monoxide and particulate pollution levels that may be 20 times higher than accepted guidelines.

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), indoor air pollution is responsible for 2.7 percent of the global burden of disease, and pneumonia accounts for the deaths of two million children every year. In 2002, cooking with solid fuels was responsible for nearly 800,000 deaths among children and more than 500,000 deaths among women.

Cleaner Fuels, Modern Stoves
The solution is to help low-income families and developing countries switch to better stoves that burn liquefied petroleum gas, biogas, or other cleaner fuels. Switching from a traditional stove to an improved stove substantially reduces indoor smoke and immediately creates a healthier environment.

"Making cleaner fuels and improved stoves available to millions of poor people in developing countries will reduce child mortality and improve women's health," said Dr LEE Jong-wook, WHO Director-General, in a press release announcing the report. "In addition to the health gains, household energy programs can help lift families out of poverty and accelerate development progress."

Low Investment for Big Health and Economic Benefits
On average, it would cost as little as $6 for families to install stoves that are better ventilated and more fuel-efficient. Halving the number of people worldwide still cooking with solid fuels by 2015 would cost $13 billion, but the economic benefit would be $91 billion annually, largely owing to reduced illness, fewer deaths, shorter cooking times, and less time spent collecting firewood and other fuel. With more time available, the report says, children would do better in school, while their mothers could engage in childcare, agriculture or other income-generating activities to help break the cycle of poverty.

Making improved stoves available to half of those still burning biomass fuels and coal on traditional stoves also would save $34 billion in fuel expenditures every year, and generate an annual economic return of $105 billion over a 10-year period.

About 90 percent of the costs of switching to better stoves and cleaner fuels would be borne by families that installed the new stoves, but investments in new technologies, local businesses, and micro-credit systems to help with financing also would be required to carry out the plan.

Direct Cause and Effect
The report demonstrates that if 100 million more homes were using liquefied petroleum gas or other cleaner fuels for cooking, then 473 million fewer people would be exposed to harmful indoor air pollution, and respiratory diseases would cause 282,000 fewer deaths each year.

"It is a travesty that 1.5 million lives a year—many of those of children whose lives have not even started—are snuffed out every year because of needless exposure to indoor smoke," said Dr Maria Neira, WHO's Director for Public Health and Environment. “We have simple, affordable solutions; let us ensure that they reach the people who can benefit from—and live by—using them.”

Read the full report: Fuel for Life: Household Energy and Health

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