Of all the life-threatening health risks to people around the world, there’s one that might surprise you. In fact, it’s among the top ten causes of death worldwide each year. You see, more than half the world - three billion people - cooks and heats with wood, coal, dung, peat…even leaves and stalks from crops…in leaky stoves or open fires. It’s a particularly insidious form of indoor air pollution…and it kills.
Most of these people are in Africa, India, China, the Middle-East and countless islands in the South Pacific…all places where many live in simple, usually poorly ventilated homes. The result, of course, is indoor smoke that harbours a range of harmful substances from carcinogens to particulate that damages respiratory and pulmonary systems. Those most affected…women and children.
“Being in a kitchen when a meal is prepared with open fire is equivalent to being exposed to approximately 400 burning cigarettes,” said Agnes Soares da Silva, Advisor Environmental Epidemiology for the Pan American Health Organization (PAHO). PAHO serves as the regional office for the World Health Organization (WHO).
More than one in every five respiratory infection deaths worldwide is due to inefficient heating and cooking indoors. More than one-third of all deaths from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) - bronchitis and emphysema - are from indoor smoke. In addition, it causes three percent of all the world’s lung cancer deaths.
The bottom line…some 4.3 million people die prematurely every year from illnesses arising from improper indoor cooking and heating, according to WHO. Think about it…that’s more than the populations of both Toronto and Montreal…every year.
I’m certain there’s no good way to die among the choices of pneumonia, heart disease, cancer, stroke, bronchitis and emphysema. Of course, there are other contributing health risks in these nations…but still, life expectancy data is shocking. You die before you’re 50 in Africa versus almost 80 years here in Canada. You might think it’s an easy fix. It is not.
Sadly, the World Bank predicts that unless significant policy changes occur among scores of nations…the number of people worldwide relying on inefficient heating and cooking will likely remain unchanged through 2030.
It’s not that people and organizations aren’t addressing the problem. WHO, for example, works with officials in each nation, educating and promoting more efficient, healthier fuels, as well as improved cooking and heating technologies. But, the changes often come slowly…one step forward and one step back…sometimes two steps.
Simple logistical problems - like getting the right fuels for the right stoves or fuels that aren’t too costly for people to use - are huge hurdles. And, sometimes, rejection of new ways is as simple as a meal that doesn’t turn out quite like what the family has always eaten.
Yes, in thousands of instances, according to government officials worldwide, mothers-in-law often put the kibosh on wives’ and mothers’ new-found cooking techniques. Old habits, it seems, are hard to break. Months after installing new stoves and hooking up more efficient fuel supplies, government officials often return to find the family using the stove as a storage cabinet…and back to cooking the old - potentially deadly - way. Still, those closest to the issue believe it’s a battle worth fighting.
“Even cultural barriers can be surpassed when people have real access to clean solutions, when they like them, when they can afford them, and when they understand why it is important to make the change,” said Ing. Karin Troncoso, temporary advisor, household air pollution at the Pan-American Health Organization.
She said poverty plays a critical role, and added, “Any effort to alleviate poverty, together with the appropriate distribution of cleaner solutions, would accelerate the transition.”
Unfortunately, the real costs are even greater than health statistics might indicate. Think of how much time and energy are lost simply to gathering the necessary wood, coal, dung and peat to cook and heat. Remember…three billion people live this way. Most often women and children gather fuels…spending billions of hours each day…simply to cook their food and heat their homes.
Sadly, the women and children suffer most from breathing more of the smoke from cooking and heating because in almost every culture the women cook, keep house…and care for the babies as they attend to these chores.
WHO has developed guidelines for indoor air quality based on solid research. The primary solutions to the problems of indoor pollution are known…better stoves and better fuels. But sometimes simple solutions aren’t all the simple to execute. How many times have perishable goods sat on loading docks in developing nations after coming ten thousand kilometres, only to spoil because food couldn’t reach starving people another hundred kilometres away?
It’s easy to take for granted our everyday conveniences…stoves that are safe, clean-burning fuels. Electricity…does anyone ever think about not having it at the flip of a switch? WHO estimates that 1.3 billion people live without electricity. Lighting from kerosene lamps and open fires…it’s hard to get your head around isn’t it?
It is frustrating for those who know things could be vastly different. We’re talking about saving millions of people. But one of the stumbling blocks is that many of the people dying don’t really know things can be different. They are so used to cooking and heating as they have for generations…dying prematurely is normal.
Solutions to most problems are rarely as easy as they first seem. Yes, better stoves and fuels - ultimately - make a difference. But, if we want to stop the unnecessary and premature deaths of millions of people a year…largely nameless and faceless people to most of us…it starts with knowing…and then caring. Now, you know.
– Don Thompson, an American awaiting Canadian citizenship, lives in Vernon and in Florida. In a career that spans more than 40 years, Don has been a working journalist, a speechwriter and the CEO of an advertising and public relations firm. A passionate and compassionate man, he loves the written word as much as fine dinners with great wines. His essays are a blend of news reporting and opinion.
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