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Breathing Easy: Respiratory Health and Cook Stoves in India

Posted on Jan 25, 2013 by Ailee Slater ()

Smog, tobacco smoke, car exhaust fumes - we all know that pollution is bad, and there's no mystery about where it comes from. Most of us, however, do not stop to consider that not all air pollution occurs outdoors. Indoor air pollution, usually resulting from the use of unclean fuel in traditional cook stoves, is an extremely pressing issue to environmental and personal health in many parts of the world.

Rural areas in third world countries are the most likely to experience high levels of indoor air pollution, and India in particular is an international leader in harmful cook stove emissions. In rural India, most families use traditional methods of cooking - open fires, smoky flames, and sold fuels such as wood and cow dung. With no chimney to diffuse the smoke, resulting fumes from this traditional method of cooking are overpowering and sometimes toxic, especially when it comes to respiratory health. A 2008 report from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) found traditional cook stoves to be a major health threat in rural India.

Researchers studied Orissa, a large state located on the South East coast of India. Their findings showed that 90 percent of households relied on traditional cooking methods and fuels such as firewood. The indoor smoke which resulted from these stoves was found to be creating extremely high levels of carbon monoxide and particulate matter inside the house. The MIT researchers pointed out that particulates are known to be very dangerous to respiratory health due to their small size; and in fact, the amount of particulates inside many of the households studied were higher than the safety standards set by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The MIT report also noted that indoor pollutants had an especially harmful effect on the respiratory health of women and children.

Half of the children studied had some type of respiratory complication, and 20 percent had a "serious cough." When researchers did breath tests with the children, they found unusually high levels of carbon monoxide considering that there were very few smokers in this under-14 age group. Likewise, with women cooking nearly twice as many meals per week as men, they also tested higher for carbon monoxide and other respiratory ailments. The MIT researchers ended their study with the recommendation that rural households in India ought to use cleaner burning fuels; however, the study also acknowledged that, considering the socio economic level of those households studied, the purchase of a new and cleaner burning cook stove was not always possible.

Luckily for the people of rural India, as well as other rural communities throughout the world, there are a number of new initiatives focused on bringing cleaner cook stoves to low-income households, and improving health by reducing indoor air pollution. Just this month, the BBC reported that the Self Employed Women's Association of India (SEWA) is currently working on a project to encourage rural women to replace their old stoves with newer, more efficient and cleaner-burning models. SEWA has partnered with the International Finance Corporation of the World Bank Group to help fund its plan to provide better stoves to rural women at reasonable prices, and work toward the goal of bettering air quality inside the home. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has also pushed for a cleaner cook stove campaign during her time in office. Clinton helped to launch a $50 million initiative making better cook stoves available to rural households around the world.

During a visit to India, Clinton observed the cleaner-burning cook stoves in action. The project was created in the hopes of reducing respiratory illness, preventing harmful particulates from polluting the environment, as well as working to reduce the estimated 400,000 annual deaths in India due to cooking fires. In terms of respiratory health in India, it is widely recognized that pulmonary illnesses are currently a major burden on health care throughout the country. S.K. Jindal, of the Department of Pulmonary Medicine at the Postgraduate Institute of Medical Research and Education in Chandigarh, published a 2008 article in which he expounded upon the problem of respiratory disease in India.

According to Jindal, the most common respiratory disorders are asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Unsurprisingly, considering other studies on the effects of cookstoves on respiratory health, significantly more women than men are diagnosed with the disease. COPD is well-known in India as a national health problem of epidemic proportions. It is estimated that around half a million people die in India every year as a result of COPD, and the disease is almost twice as prevalent amongst rural populations. Along with the negative effects upon the health of an individual, this chronic respiratory disease has significant impacts on the Indian health care system as a whole.

According to a 2012 report by the Journal of the Association of Physicians of India (JAPI), the nation is losing an estimated  35,000 INR (around 650 USD) per year to dealing with health care issues associated with COPD; that financial estimate becomes even more significant when one considers that the entire yearly budget of the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare of India is less than 26,000 INR. That 2012 JAPI report, like many before it, notes the deleterious effects of indoor pollution on respiratory health: "During her lifetime, every woman who spends between 2-3 hours for cooking every day inhales a volume of 25 million litres of highly polluted air, thereby exposing her to extremely high levels of particulate matter and gaseous air pollutants.

Exposure to biomass smoke therefore becomes a major risk factor for COPD in India." So many studies agree upon the harmful effects of traditional high-smoke cook stoves, and so many programs are now working to fight those dangers to respiratory health and the environmental. Indoor air pollution from cook stoves is a significant problem in India as well as other nations, but it seems that for this particular health care issue, a viable solution is well on its way.

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