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Indoor pollution

June 27, 2013

Clean fuels for cooking would save lives around the world, says Dr. Maria Neira, director of public health and environment at the World Health Organization.

ARCHIV - ILLUSTRATION - Flammen an einem Gasherd leuchten am 23.03.2008 in Würzburg. Wenn die Tage kühler werden, steigt der Gasverbrauch. Für die Versorger oft ein Grund, an der Preisschraube zu drehen. Doch die große Preiswelle zu Beginn der Heizperiode im Herbst bleibt diesmal aus. Foto: Karl-Josef Hildenbrand dpa (Zu dpa «Gaspreise im Aufwärtstrend - kein Preisschock im Herbst» vom 20.08.2012) +++(c) dpa - Bildfunk+++
Gasflamme GasherdImage: picture-alliance/dpa

In millions of homes around the world, women spend hours every day collecting wood, dung and other solid fuels for cooking and heating. They cook using rudimentary stoves or open fires, often in unventilated kitchens. The smoke is toxic and each year an estimated four million people die from lung cancer, emphysema, pneumonia and other illnesses caused by inhaling these fumes. Dr Maria Neira, director of public health and environment at the World Health Organization, says safe cooking is a right for everyone.

DW: Could you explain the link between access to energy and people’s health in their homes?

Dr Maria Neira, WHO's Director for Public Health and Environment. (Photo: Martial Trezzini)
Dr Maria Neira wants more women to adopt more efficient cookstoves, for the sake of their healthImage: picture-alliance/dpa

Almost half of the world’s population is still cooking like in the Stone Age. Everybody has the right to access clean energy to cook, to heat their house, to have a proper life, to have light as well, and it’s not the case at the moment. People are still using solid fuels that are very polluting, resulting in this horrible pollution in their houses. Most of those affected are women because they are the ones cooking and collecting fuels.

The children are normally on the backs of the mother and therefore they are among the most exposed to the pollutants. When you have an open fire you can see the combustion and the pollutants going into the air. You breathe that in. Even very small particles can go into other parts of your body causing a lot of health problems.

Can you give me an example of how the smoke is physically affecting the body?

When you are breathing particles the most damaging for our health are particulate matter, which is a mixture of different pollutants and depending on the dimension of those particles, the smaller they are, the more easily they enter the body. Some of them will are big enough to stay in the thoracic cavity and therefore will affect only the upper part of our respiratory system.

Others are so small they get distributed throughout the inner body, causing respiratory problems like pneumonia in children, or a chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases, lung cancer. Particulate matter can cause problems in pregnancy, or cardiovascular diseases, stroke, cataracts. The impact on our health can be really damaging.

Can you descibe what it is like in the homes of people who are cooking this way?

You visit the houses of these people and then you see the life of these girls and women, spending hours every day collecting wood, then cooking or heating water for the different uses at home, and inhaling this horrible air. You can’t breathe. You get in and you start to have problems and irritation immediately.

Women cooking over a fire in Africa
About three billion people use polluting, inefficient stoves to cook each dayImage: Fotolia/africa

I think that by providing access to clean energy at the household level, we will also provide the opportunity for girls to use their time going to school. They won't be as vulnerable to violence as they collect the wood, they will have a dignified way to cook. Safe water and safe energy and the right to have clean air to breathe every day should be a major determinant of our health - we need to fight for it.

Why is it important to improve access to energy from clean fuels or alternative sources?

We need to make a major effort to convince politicians that access to clean energy is a basic right. We can’t accept the fact that for instance in sub-Saharan Africa 60 percent of the healthcare facilities don't have access to energy at all. This puts at risk the health of the people, particularly the women who need to give birth. You don't even have a simple refrigerator to keep your vaccines.

So, minimal medical services cannot be provided if you don’t have access to a minimum of energy. Solar panels can be a solution in certain places. It will be a major protection for women’s health by increasing access to solar panels.

Dr Maria Neira is the director of public health and environment at the World Health Organization (WHO).

Interview: Saroja Coelho