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Close to Home: Cookstove Smoke Places 3 Billion Lives at Risk from Indoor Air Pollution

Woman standing over metal bowl making flatbread next to smoking branchesWhen you think of really bad air pollution, it's probably the thick haze often wrapped around the buildings and highways in Beijing and Delhi. But for women in countries around the world, air quality risks can be in the home.

Nearly 3 billion people worldwide still cook and heat their homes using solid fuels (wood, crop residues, charcoal, coal or animal dung) in open fires and leaky stoves. These inefficient cooking fuels and technologies paired with a lack of ventilation results in women and their children breathing high levels of household air pollution with a range of health-damaging pollutants, such as small soot particles (PM2.5), on a daily basis. In fact, in poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for these fine particles.

Each year, exposure to household air pollution from inefficient stoves kills 3.5 million people directly, as well as another half a million people from the emissions these stoves contribute to outdoor air pollution, according to the World Health Organization (WHO). WHO finds indoor air pollution is an independent risk factor for low birth weight, childhood pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), cataracts, cardiovascular disease and lung cancer. Cookstove emissions also create black carbon, a potent climate change pollutant.

In general, those most affected live in extreme poverty within low- and middle-income countries. However, Americans are affected as well, with an estimated 500,000 to 600,000 low-income, rural Americans at risk from cookstove fumes.

Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend time at home breathing smoke and soot from leaky cookstoves. These devices pose a big problem for nearly half the world's population, including Americans who rely on similar devices to cook and heat their homes. Improved stoves decrease kitchen smoke by as much as 90 percent, significantly reducing both wood consumption and the smoke-related diseases like chronic respiratory disease and lung cancer. Yet these improved systems have not been widely adopted due to a variety of barriers, including lack of access to electricity, resources and awareness. One report found that once women became aware of adverse effects from leaky stoves, they were willing to change cooking practices, but were unable to afford cleaner fuels or improved stoves.

Creating opportunities for women is essential to build stronger economies and improve the quality of life for whole communities. Women need better choices for cooking as well as sources of heat and light. We need to work with them so they are able to swiftly adopt these technologies to meet their needs and save lives.

Awareness of these health risks has sparked a global effort to have 100 million households adopt clean cooking technologies by 2020. Last October, in the United States, Senator Susan Collins (R-ME), along with Senator Dick Durbin (D-IL), introduced the bipartisan Clean Cookstoves and Fuels Support Act, a bill that would address the global health, environmental and economic problems caused by exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves and open fires.

Explaining why the American Lung Association supported this bill, our National President and CEO, Harold P. Wimmer, drove home the need to help these women: "Breathing is essential to life, yet nearly half the world's population suffers from dangerous household air pollution from cooking on open fires or dirty, unsafe cookstoves. Replacing old, polluting stoves with modern versions that emit far less soot will directly benefit the world's poorest people, especially women and girls, and reduce the risk of devastating diseases like lung cancer."

We at the American Lung Association seek a world free of lung disease. Cleaner stoves will help make that happen.

Learn more about cookstoves and indoor air quality from the World Health Organization's Guidelines for Indoor Air Quality.

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Related Topic: Healthy Air

  • Janice Nolen
    Assistant Vice President, National Policy
    American Lung Association
    Janice Nolen is the American Lung Association's Assistant Vice President of National Policy.
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