Rural Africa indoor air pollution needs quick fix


Most people in rural Africa still cook and heat their homes using solid fuels in open fires and leaky stoves. They burn biomass (wood, animal dung, crop waste) and use coal because most of them are poor.

According to the World Health Organisation, such cooking and heating produce high levels of indoor air pollution with a range of health-damaging pollutants, including small soot particles that penetrate deep into the lungs.

Indoor air pollution is a contributory cause of high death rates in Africa. Acute respiratory infections, ear and eye problems, breathlessness, chest pains, headaches and giddiness are just some of the symptoms that poor women and children suffer in their rural homes.

The cause: smoke from cooking. WHO reports: “In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for small particles.

“Exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth.” WHO goes on to say, “Nearly 2 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to indoor air pollution due to solid fuel use.”

Critical to note is thus the fact that indoor air pollution impacts heavily on health equity, development and climate change in countries within and across the African continent.

This means without a substantial change in policy, the total number of people relying on biomass fuels will increase to from today’s 2.4 billion to 2.7 billion by 2030 (IEA, 2010). This will further increase the number of people at risk of adverse health effects from indoor air pollution as the use of polluting fuels poses a major burden on development.

For instance, fuel gathering consumes considerable time for women and children, limiting other productive activities and taking children away from school. In less secure environments, women and children are at risk of injury and violence during fuel gathering.

Furthermore, non-renewable harvesting of biomass contributes to deforestation and thus climate change. Methane and black carbon (sooty particles) emitted by inefficient stove combustion are powerful climate change pollutants.

WHO states, “The lack of access to electricity for at least 1.4 billion of households (many of whom then use kerosene lamps for lighting), creates other health risks, for example burns and injuries, as well as constraining other opportunities for health and development, for instance studying or engaging in small crafts and trades, which require adequate light.”

To escape dangers of indoor air pollution, Africa and her citizenry should embark on behavioural modifications. More so, to reduce exposure, governments should put in place programmes that encourage mothers to keep their babies away from the fire; raise awareness of health effects and mitigation options.

The introduction of smoke hoods, eaves, windows and improved, fuel efficient stoves can also reduce the damage of indoor air pollution in Africa. They cannot only improve people’s health but also reduce drudgery, save money and increase people’s comfort.

Majid Ezzati, associate professor of international health at Harvard University’s School of Public Health, believes the greatest risk reductions can be achieved by a complete transition to electricity, or even to direct use of fossil fuels like natural gas and kerosene.

“Although the health risks of poisoning or burns from kerosene have not been systematically quantified, they are likely much smaller than the health risks from biomass and coal,” comments Ezzati.

Another alternative is transitioning to cleaner fuels. To make it (transitioning) possible, African governments should be prepared to face high costs of the infrastructure needed to generate, process, and deliver clean energy. Ezzati says greater use of transformed biofuels is another important intervention for very low-income societies. He notes: “Evidence suggests that a substantial portion of the potential health risk reduction from a transition to petroleum-based fossil fuels could still be achieved by shifting toward charcoal.

Ezzati goes on to say: “Greater use of other transformed biofuels might produce significant benefits, although these other fuels have received little attention in the health and indoor air pollution literature.

“Nonetheless, if the technological, funding, and institutional challenges could be met, transitioning to sustainable fuels like charcoal offers a valuable opportunity to promote gender equality and improve environmental sustainability, while also ranking among one of the most cost-effective health interventions in developing countries.”

Honestly, to tackle problems associated with indoor air pollution, African governments should treat and address it as part of a comprehensive hygiene concept in a household setting.

October 2013
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