Every year, nearly 4 million people die prematurely from indoor air pollution. Many succumb to diseases linked to inhaling smoke from kerosene, wood and charcoal fires, which are commonly used in the developing world for cooking and heating.
To help raise awareness about indoor air pollution, the United Nations launched last year the International Day of Clean Air for blue skies. With this year’s event just around the corner, here are seven things you should know about household air pollutants.
1. They are terrible for human health
Tens of millions of people become sick, injured, or burnt from using fuel in their living spaces. Household air pollution causes stroke, heart disease, lung cancer and other deadly ailments.
The burning of unclean fuels, like coal, releases large quantities of dangerous pollutants, including carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxides, and fine particulate matter (PM). In households with open burning and unvented solid fuel stoves, particles smaller than 2.5 micrometres in diameter (PM2.5) can exceed WHO-recommended levels by up to 100 times.
And the impact of indoor air pollution extends beyond the home, contributing to almost 500,000 of the premature deaths attributed to outdoor air pollution every year.
2. Dirty household fuels are disastrous for the environment
Household combustion is the second-largest contributor to climate change after carbon dioxide and a major component of particulate matter. It also produces an estimated quarter of all black carbon, or soot emissions, which, according to the World Health Organization, have a per-unit warming capacity 460 – 1,500 times greater than that of carbon dioxide.
When they interact with outdoor air pollutants, household combustion emissions contribute to the formation of ground level ozone – a short-lived climate pollutant that decreases crop yields and affects local weather patterns.
3. Affordable, reliable energy can help reduce indoor air pollution
Sustainable Development Goal (SDG) 7 envisages “access to affordable, reliable and modern energy for all by 2030.” The global adoption of clean household energy – including low-emission stoves, heating and lighting – could save millions of lives.
It would also help to reduce biodiversity loss caused by using wood for fuel, decelerate forest degradation, reduce carbon dioxide emissions from biomass, and lower emissions of black carbon, methane and carbon monoxide. In fact, since black carbon particles only remain in the air for a week or less (versus carbon dioxide, which can remain for more than a century) reducing their emission is an important way to decelerate climate change in the near-term.
To date, however, there remains a dearth of access to affordable, clean energy options.
4. Household air pollution entrenches poverty and inequality
In more than 155 countries, a healthy environment is recognized as a constitutional right. Obligations related to clean air are implicit in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. The 2030 Agenda is based on the premise that no one should be left behind.
Nonetheless, there are still 3 billion people using unsafe fuels in their homes; and they are typically among the world’s poorest.
Access to clean cooking fuels and technologies is increasing by just 1 per cent a year.
5. Women and girls suffer most from indoor air pollution
Those who spend more time indoors, including women and children, are disproportionately affected by household air pollution. Women and girls are particularly vulnerable to kerosene cooking and lighting explosions. And close to half of all pneumonia deaths among children under five are a consequence of the soot they inhale at home.
Those who rely on unclean fuels are both the most vulnerable to noncommunicable diseases and the least able to cover the costs of sickness, associated healthcare costs, and lost work hours.
Exposure to pollutants can also affect the brain, causing developmental delays, behavioural problems, and even lower IQ in children.
According to one World Health Organization analysis, girls in households that rely on unclean fuels lose 15 to 30 hours each week gathering wood or water – meaning that they are disadvantaged both in comparison to households that have access to clean fuels, as well as their male counterparts.
6. Countries can cut pollution-related deaths through investments and legislation
Household air pollution can be reduced by phasing out the use of unprocessed coal and kerosene in homes; adopting cleaner fuels, like biogas, ethanol and liquified petroleum gas; moving toward renewable energy sources wherever possible; developing safe, efficient household technologies; and ensuring proper ventilation.
Increasing access to clean household fuels and technology is an effective way to reduce poverty, sickness and death, particularly in developing countries and among vulnerable groups. The uptake of clean household fuels and new technology can also slow forest degradation and loss of habitat while combating climate change.
7. The United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) is devoted to reducing air pollution
The UNEP-hosted Climate and Clean Air Coalition prioritizes the adoption of clean household fuels and technologies as a way to mitigate short-lived climate pollutants, improve air quality, and realize environmental, social and economic benefits.
The coalition’s Household Energy Initiative raises awareness about the relationship between climate change; advocates for donor support to clean, low-energy cooking, heating, and lighting activities; and promotes solutions that reduce black carbon and other emissions.
For more information about household air pollution, contact Tiy Chung: [email protected]
Every year, on 7 September, the world celebrates the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies. The day aims to raise awareness and facilitate actions to improve air quality. It is a global call to find new ways of doing things, to reduce the amount of air pollution we cause, and ensure that everyone, everywhere can enjoy their right to breathe clean air. The theme of the second annual International Day of Clear Air for blue skies, facilitated by the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP), is “Healthy Air, Healthy Planet.”