Indoor air pollution: The killer in our midst

Rafiqul Islam
Thursday, December 15th, 2016


Rahima Khatun (35) is a rural housewife of Gobaria village under Kuliarchar Upazila in Kishoreganj. She has three children – one daughter and two sons – aged in between 5-10 years. Like other rural women, cooking foodstuff for her family goes to her responsibility. Rahima uses a traditional cookstove in her kitchen to cook food items, burning firewood or biomass, which creates smokes inside her kitchen.


When she cooks food items for breakfast in every morning, her under-aged three children sit aside the cookstove to pass their pleasing time with her mother. And when she cooks meals for supper, they also sit beside the stove. It come a regular practice for them in their daily life. But, Rahima did not know how she and her children are being exposed to indoor air pollution.


Since her children inhaled polluted air inside kitchen for a long time, they all are now suffering from respiratory diseases like asthma and breathing problems. When her elder son Kasem was admitted to a local hospital after he felt breathing problem and doctors listened to the history of his diseases, they identified that her son is a victim of indoor air pollution.


Similarly, her younger son Rabbi and daughter Surma Khatun frequently feel sick due to long-time breathing of polluted air. “Due to my ignorance, my children are now suffering from different diseases including asthma. Despite living in poverty, we have to spend extra money for their treatment, increasing our household expenditure,” Rahima said.


Apart from her children, Rahima also becomes the victim of indoor air pollution since she has been suffering from high-blood pressure inhaling polluted air inside her kitchen. “I have to take medicines regularly to check my blood pressure. And I do not know when I will get escaped from it,” she said showing her concern.


Like Rahima’s family, there are thousands of households in Bangladesh that have been using traditional cookstoves inside their kitchens to cook food items. Traditional cookstoves generate severe air pollution inside their houses, posing threat to health of million of children and women in rural areas of the country.


Since the lungs, brains and immune systems of children are still developing and their respiratory tracks are more permeable, they are more vulnerable than adults to air pollution.


A new Unicef report – ‘Clear the air for children: The impact of air pollution on children’ – that released on October 31, 2016, reveals that over 8,500 children die every year in Bangladesh from diseases caused by household air pollution while 89 percent of households use solid fuels – mostly wood, agricultural waste and cow dung – for cooking and space heating.


According to it, Bangladesh has one of the largest burdens of child mortality associated with indoor air pollution. The reasons for relatively limited uptake of improved cookstoves to date include a lack of awareness of health risks associated with the household air pollution, higher costs compared to traditional cookstoves and competing development priorities.


“In our society women are in charge of cooking and they spend around 3-7 hours per day preparing food. In rural areas, it is mostly biomass fuel such as wood, straw, agriculture residue and dung used for cooking and heating purpose,” said Bidya Banmali Pradhan, an associate coordinator (Atmosphere Initiative) of Katmandu-based think tank International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD).


She noted that inefficient burning of these solid biomass fuels causes indoor air pollution.


“Young children are often carried on their back or be close to their mother while she is in the kitchen. Consequently, children spend many hours breathing indoor smoke in their early age making them vulnerable to hazardous pollutants,” Bidya said.


Globally, she said, about two million premature deaths per year are accounted due to indoor pollution. The World Health Organization (WHO) states that harmful cookstove smoke from the use of solid fuels is the fourth worst overall health risk factor in developing countries.


According to a WHO expert, children suffer most from the respiratory diseases such as emphysema, bronchitis and asthma due to indoor air pollution, but their brain development is also hit hard by inhaling polluted air.


Additional director general of the Department of Environment (DoE) Quazi Sarwar Imtiaz Hashmi said the DoE is now distributing improved and green cookstroves among rural women aiming to check indoor air pollution.


According to the WHO, around 3 billion people globally cook and heat their homes using solid fuels like wood, charcoal, coal, dung, crop wastes on open fires or traditional stoves. Such inefficient cooking produces high levels of household (indoor) air pollution, which includes a range of health damaging pollutants such as fine particles and carbon monoxide.


In poorly ventilated dwellings, smoke in and around the home can exceed acceptable levels for fine particles 100-fold. Exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic fireside.


WHO data reveals about 4.3 million people a year die globally after they exposed to indoor air pollution.

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