Fighting to Breathe

New WHO Report Says Air Pollution from Cooking Caused 4.3 Million Premature Deaths

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In new estimates released this week, WHO reports that in 2012 around 7 million people died as a result of air pollution exposure. This finding more than doubles previous estimates and confirms that air pollution is now the world’s largest single environmental health risk. The biggest culprit was indoor air pollution that results from cooking over open fires. Each year, some 4.3 million people die prematurely because of the poisonous air inside their homes. Furthermore, exposure tends to be extra-noxious for women and children in the developing world since both spend more time around cook stoves and fires.

March 27, 2014 | Gwynn Guilford,

Nasty airborne particles kill 7 million people a year prematurely, reports the World Health Organization—way more than previous estimates.

That news may not come as a surprise to anyone who has seen images of smog-belching smokestacks in Beijing, Delhi, or Mexico. But those factories—or even the clogged roadways of modern cities—are not the biggest culprit. Each year, some 4.3 million people die earlier than they should because of foul air inside their homes, says the WHO. (Its study accounted for fact that people spend time both indoor and outdoors.)

What’s causing the air inside people’s homes to be so poisonous it kills around 11,000 people a day? Stoves. “Having an open fire in your kitchen is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour,” says Kirk Smith, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, whose research suggests that household air pollution from cooking killed between 3.5 million and 4 million people (pdf, p.186) prematurely in 2010.

Not all stoves cause this kind of devastation. The ones Smith’s talking about are those that the 3 billion people in the developing world use for heat and cooking, which burn solid fuels such as wood, coal, dung, or crop waste instead of gas. The smoke from those fires pumps a harmful fug of fine particles and carbon monoxide into homes. Lousy ventilation then prevents that smoke from escaping, sending fine particle levels soaring 100 times higher than the limits that the WHO considers acceptable.

Breathing this air day in, day out eventually causes a slew of diseases: more than a third of the 4.3 million who die prematurely each year succumb to a stroke, while a quarter die of ischaemic heart disease. And around one-third of annual lung disease deaths worldwide are due to exhaust from coal- or biomass-burning stoves (pdf, p.1).

Exposure tends to be extra-noxious for the people who spend the most time around the fire—usually women and young children. In fact, the WHO reports that household air pollution almost doubles the risk for childhood pneumonia, and attributed more than half the deaths among children less than 5 years old from acute lower respiratory infections to smoke from indoor fires.

 

Gwynn Guilford is a general reporter and editor for Quartz. She previously blogged at Andrew Sullivan's The Dish, where she covered China and economics, among other topics. This article was originally published at Quartz. 


Comments

  • Exposure tends to be extra-noxious for the people who spend the most time around the fire—usually women and young children.

    But more men die?
    Men 1.99 million vs women 1.77

    Is there something wrong with the numbers?

    By robjoh on 2014 03 28

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    • Combined, women and children make up 2,301,000 deaths from household indoor air pollution. The WHO report says, “Exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth.”

      By Breakthrough Admin on 2014 04 02

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  • I bought a superb book on this subject, Fires, Fuel & the Fate of 3 Billion, by Gautam N. Yadama with wonderful photos by Mark Katzman. This coffee-table-style book also emphasizes the environmental harm of deforestation to obtain wood for cooking. Subtitled “The State of the Energy Imporvrished” it emphasizes the needs of 3 billion people for clean, affordable energy cheaper than coal.

    By Robert Hargraves on 2014 03 31

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