Network Updates / Geneva, Switzerland / 2019-03-08

Not quite balanced: Billions of women and girls still cook with polluting fuels:

Among "the forgotten 3 billion" who cook with polluting fuels, women bear heavy opportunity costs

Geneva, Switzerland
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Written from information from the World Health Organization.

They are the “forgotten 3 billion”.

They’re the 3 billion people across the world who cook over polluting open fires or simple stoves fuelled by kerosene, biomass (wood, animal dung and crop waste) and coal, a practice that exposes them to a range of health-damaging pollutants, including small soot particles that penetrate deep into the lungs.

In homes that are less well-ventilated, fine particles in indoor smoke can accumulate to concentrations 100 times higher than acceptable levels.

Exposure to these pollutants is particularly high among women and girls, who traditionally spend most time near the domestic hearth.

A woman cooks over a charcoal fire. Photo by Elaine Fletcher.

The health impacts are devastating: close to 4 million people a year die prematurely from illness attributable to the household air pollution caused by the inefficient use of solid fuels and kerosene for cooking– 27 per cent of them from pneumonia, 18 per cent from stroke, 27 per cent from ischaemic heart disease, 20 per cent from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and 8 per cent from lung cancer.

This makes it the second leading environmental cause of death in the world, after outdoor air pollution– deaths that are preventable through solutions that already exist and which, if put in place, have tremendous potential payoff not just in terms of health, but also in terms of climate change, gender equality and other Sustainable Development Goals, not least equitable access to affordable and clean energy.

That payoff would include claw-back of the huge opportunity costs for women and girls who cook with solid biomass: the hours spent gathering fuel steals time from educational, economic, family and community activities and other enrichment, and exposes them to injury and sexual violence.

That’s on top of the avoided health impacts and risks, which, for women, also include bearing pre-term babies and babies with low birthweight, as well as an emerging concern that harmful air pollutants can find their way into breastmilk.

More generally, there is also evidence of links between household air pollution and tuberculosis, cataract, nasopharyngeal and laryngeal cancers. Also, the ingestion of kerosene is the leading cause of childhood poisonings, and a large fraction of the severe burns and injuries occurring in low- and middle-income countries are linked to household energy use for cooking, heating and/or lighting.

Fortunately, the impacts of air pollution are increasingly known, as are the solutions to the problem and the multiple benefits of action for better air quality; all three elements this week drove UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur David Boyd to emphatically call for countries to safeguard the human right to clean air, with special mention of its impacts on women.

Some countries, including Indonesia and India, and organizations and partnerships like the World Bank and the Clean Cooking Alliance are taking sweeping action to help households switch away from polluting fuels to those that are less damaging to health, alongside entrepreneurs working towards the same goals.

These efforts go towards solving the problem of cooking-related air pollution and fulfilling the Sustainable Development Goals, safeguarding the right to clean air– and more– for billions of women.

Read more on the health impacts of household air pollution from the WHO: Household air pollution and health and Household air pollution from cooking, heating and lighting

Read more about the efforts of the World Bank and their partners in Lao PDR, Bangladesh, and Indonesia to support the transition away from polluting cooking fuels. 

Find out more about the Clean Cooking Alliance

Discover tried-and-tested solutions to the air pollution problem: 25 clean air measures for Asia and the Pacific

Learn more about International Women’s Day.

Banner photo by DIPTENDU DUTTA/AFP/Getty Images