Almost half the world population still cooks, heats and lights their homes with very polluting fuels like vegetal (raw) coal and wood, putting them at risk of becoming one of the 3.8 million people who die from exposure to air pollution each year.
Director of Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health at the World Health Organization, Dr Maria Neira, believes governments need to make sure that these people have access to clean energy.
“This (figure) is unacceptable. If you are using wood or coal for cooking, we don’t blame you, we want your government to make sure that you have clean energy,” she said, responding in a live discussion on Facebook to a question from an international audience on what actions people could take to bring down deaths by air pollution.
“Those are the victims, they are very vulnerable people,” she said.
Dr Neira emphasised that actions taken to curb air pollution count towards several Sustainable Development Goals, in this case, the goals on health, access to clean energy, on climate action and even on access to quality education.
“The ones collecting the wood are the girls, and because they have to spend hours a day collecting those fuels, they don’t go to school,” she said.
“We want commitments”
Dr Neira stressed that a first WHO Global Conference on Air Pollution and Health would help drive action by countries, inviting them to sign commitments to reduce air pollution outdoors as well as in households.
These commitments would also count towards meeting Sustainable Development Goals on access to clean energy, on climate action and even quality education, she emphasized, noting on the last point: “Because they [girls] have to spend hours a day collecting those fuels, they don’t go to school.”
Dr Neira expected that the conference would showcase innovative solutions to air pollution along with the data and science about risks to public health. .
WHO’s efforts to create awareness of those risks as well as of viable interventions has ensured that “no government or politician can say that ‘we didn’t know’” about the connection between air pollution and public health, she said.
Indeed, more governments than ever are taking action, with 4,300 cities submitting air quality monitoring data to the WHO, making the database the largest ever collected on urban air quality. This data, along with satellite monitoring, is the basis for WHO’s latest report on deaths and illness related to air pollution, globally, regionally and nationally.
“What can we do?”
The ways in which government leaders, including mayors, can act took up much of the discussion, but individuals certainly didn’t get a free pass.
The question that kept popping back up in various forms was: what can be done?
“Put pressure on your mayors, politicians, governments,” Dr Neira said, “as individuals, instead of using your cars, why don’t you walk, cycle or use public transport systems? That will already reduce air pollution. You can also use energy in an efficient way.”
She also encouraged people to engage with the BreatheLife campaign for ideas, and urged them to contribute ideas, too.
“We want to scale up and create a mountain of momentum,” she said, adding, “protest, engage in action, go for more! At the end of the day, your health is the price of polluted air.”