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Indoor air pollution – the killer in the kitchen

Joint statement WHO/UNDP

Nigel Bruce, University of Liverpool
Nigel Bruce, University of Liverpool

The World Health Organization (WHO) and the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) are marking World Rural Women’s Day on 15 October 2004 by drawing attention to indoor air pollution - one of the major causes of death and disease in the world’s poorest countries. While the millions of deaths from well-known communicable diseases often make headlines, indoor air pollution remains a silent and unreported killer. Rural women and children are the most at risk.

Thick acrid smoke rising from stoves and fires inside homes is associated with around 1.6 million deaths per year in developing countries – that’s one life lost every 20 seconds to the killer in the kitchen.

Nearly half of the world continues to cook with solid fuels such as dung, wood, agricultural residues and coal. Smoke from burning these fuels gives off a poisonous cocktail of particles and chemicals that bypass the body’s defences and more than doubles the risk of respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia.

The indoor concentration of health-damaging pollutants from a typical wood-fired cooking stove creates carbon monoxide and other noxious fumes at anywhere between seven and 500 times over the allowable limits (see table below).

Day in day out, and for hours at a time, rural women and their children in particular are subjected to levels of smoke in their homes that far exceed international safety standards. The World Energy Assessment* estimates that the amount of smoke from these fires is the equivalent of consuming two packs of cigarettes a day - and yet, these families are faced with what amounts to a non-choice - not cooking using these fuels, or not eating.

Rural women and their families also pay a high economic price for keeping the fire burning. Up to three mornings a week are spent collecting fuel such as wood. This perpetual toil denies poor rural women the chance to be more productive through paid work that would raise their family’s income, improve the standard of living and enhance their nutritional and health status. And in the crisis-stricken Darfur region of Sudan, the chore has taken on a perilous dimension following the rape, kidnap, beatings and murder of women leaving refugee camps to search for wood.

So what can be done to put an end to indoor air pollution? Finding cleaner solutions is the main challenge. Gases, liquids and electricity are the main alternatives. Although today these energy sources derive mainly from fossil fuels, this needs not be the case in the future when renewable energies may ease the pressure on natural ecosystems. Other steps include the recognition and action by governments, the aid community, civil society and other key actors that indoor smoke is a huge blight on the lives of rural women and their children.

Two years ago, at the World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) in Johannesburg the Global Partnership for Clean Indoor Air was launched with the backing of WHO and the international community. As such, a growing network of experts and organizations are responding to the challenge by finding innovative and affordable solutions that deploy cleaner stoves, fuels and smoke hoods. Their implementation will require the development of viable and sustainable markets, as created through the Liquefied Petroleum Gas (LPG) Rural Energy Challenge for LPG delivery and consumption, a public-private partnership including UNDP, also established at the WSSD. But this is just the beginning. WHO recently published the first-ever comprehensive Atlas of Children's Environmental Health as a means of drawing attention to and increasing support for reducing indoor air pollution (and other environmental health issues). We need the same attention paid to this “killer in the kitchen” as is paid to other major killers.

*The World Energy Assessment is a joint publication of UNDP, the UN Department for Economic & Social Affairs and the World Energy Council.

Note: using 1 Kg of wood/hour in 15 ACH 40 m3 kitchens emits, among other pollutants, the following:

Pollutant Emission (mg/m3) Allowable standard (mg/m3)
Carbon Monoxide 150 10
Particles 3.3 0.1
Benzene 0.8 0.002
1,3-Butadiene 0.15 0.0003
Formaldehyde 0.7 0.1

Source: Based on the UNDP/DESA/WEC World Energy Assessment

For more information contact:

Nada Osseiran
Telephone: +41 22 791 4475

Eva Rehfuess
Telephone: (+41 22) 791 4979
Fax: (+41 22) 791 1383