In the past few months, citizens across the globe have been forced into isolation as a social-distancing measure to combat the spread of COVID-19. The OWP sends out its condolences to those who have lost friends and family members. However, as we begin to spend even more time inside our homes than we did before, another dangerous health risk presents itself, with the potential to not only impact our health, but present complications in those who contract COVID-19.
Every year, indoor air pollutants kill more people than HIV/AIDS and malaria combined, ranging from 3.5-4.3 million each year, while negatively impacting the health of millions more. One of the primary causes of indoor air pollution in developing countries is the preparation of food in poorly ventilated homes while using cook stoves that rely on wood, charcoal, and/or dung as their source of fuel. Such materials are not only bad for the lungs and respiratory system, but emit particulate matter (PM) and Volatile Organic Compounds (VOCs), particles that are both bad for the environment. While this phenomenon is mostly limited to sub-Saharan Africa and South India, over 3 billion are at risk in the developing world, and that’s not including the hazards that modern kitchen appliances pose in developed countries.
Before government-mandated quarantines, humans already spent more than 90% of their lives inside. While many in the U.S. are privileged enough to live in homes free of asbestos and other known particle hazards, the growing field of indoor air pollution is already attracting the attention of microbiologists, environmentalists, and health experts as many are scrambling to answer a simple question: what are we breathing? And what’s more, how is it affecting our health?
When looking at indoor air pollution policy, the important points to consider are a lack of basic information, habituation, and a lack of resources being directed to solve the problem. Indoor air pollution has been around for thousands of years since man began to light fires inside of caves, but it wasn’t until 1850 when the hygienic revolution began, and again in 1960 when activists began to advocate for cleaner air that we began to pay attention to what we were breathing. From 1960-1990, most reforms in the U.S. focused on outdoor air pollution, such as the adoption of the catalytic converter on most cars in 1975. But in 1989, lawmakers worldwide began to enact reforms that addressed indoor air pollution. In 1989, lawmakers banned the use of asbestos in manufacturing and construction, a reform that widely decreased the number of deaths attributed to indoor air pollution. Even today, scientists are still discovering what the air in our homes consists of, with the results painting a worrying picture of what we’re inhaling.
In an article in the New Yorker, “The Hidden Air Pollution in our Homes,” the author interviewed scientists at an indoor air pollution lab at the University of Texas at Austin, describing their work as a groundbreaking study of household pollutants. Researchers worked out of a house owned by the university and filled it with tools that were calibrated to detect levels of various pollutants, including VOCs. After retrofitting the house, scientists went on to study the effects that cooking would have on pollution levels, cooking numerous Thanksgiving dinners to judge the combination of organic particulates, stove emissions, and even the mixture of disinfectant in the air that was initially used to clean the floors.
“The scariest thing in this house is probably the toaster,” said one student, noting the number of particles that emitted.
It’s important to understand that the harmful effects of indoor air pollution comes from the mixture of particulates that create hazardous pollutant cocktails that are bad for our respiratory system. Such ‘‘cocktails’’ include the mixture of burnt toast and Lysol that were used to clean the floors of the lab, giving insight into how various elements of our indoor environments react with one another.
But as we continue to learn more about Hazardous Air Pollutants (HAPs), it’s important to understand the other obstacles at play. In the developing world, humanitarians are looking to distribute cookstoves that are not only more efficient, but are healthier for those who use them by using cleaner forms of energy, like ethanol. One study conducted in Nigeria even found that giving pregnant mothers cleaner cookstoves resulted in higher birth weights of their children, a factor that correlates with the overall health in newborns. Providing better cookstoves also results in better respiratory health for women and children, and can reduce the gender gap according to the U.N..
A Path Forward
But regardless of where you live in the world, not much is being done to solve the problems that pollutants present. Not enough resources are being sent to developing countries, and not enough innovations are being included in the construction of modern homes to mitigate the effects that indoor air pollution can have. In fact, our best line of defense against indoor air pollution is properly ventilating your home while cooking, a practice that is only effective in areas where outdoor emissions are safer than indoor emissions. Cooking with spices can also fight against indoor air pollution and hampers the ability of toxic compounds to react with one another.
In 2014, the W.H.O. put new guidelines in place to mitigate indoor air pollution, including aims to “help countries introduce cleaner technologies, improve air quality in poor households, reduce pollution-related diseases and save lives.”
While such goals are admirable, the efforts to provide over 3 billion households worldwide with a guaranteed source of clean cookware requires considerable investment, education, and dedication. Ethanol stoves require a steady supply of ethanol, and poorer individuals are often not able to afford the cost of ethanol, even if it is better for their health, and must instead rely on scavenged wood and dung to fuel their cooking. Additionally, those who have been cooking the same way for the majority of their lives have not only habituated to an environment with low air quality, but may be resistant to changing their methods.
One study found that participants who were given a stove with a filter showed better outcomes over the course of one year, but the same outcomes over the course of four years, partly because it was cumbersome to use (so participants ditched the new stove), and partly because there were longer-term health effects correlated with the previous use of a polluting stove. Solar-powered stoves were also unpopular if they did not have a charge that lasted into the night.
But there is a path forward. Most Nigerian mothers in the cookstoves study were willing to spend the extra money to purchase a weekly supply of ethanol, mainly because of the improved health effects. Ethanol can also be produced from the farm waste that many Nigerian farmers are forced to dispose of, giving farmers more economic opportunities, along with an emerging market for ethanol production, manufacture, and sale. The key is creating an efficient supply chain that produces a product that’s low cost, environmentally-friendly, and easy to use. Products that are more complicated and more costly than the status quo simply have no hope of being purchased or used by a low-income mother in sub-Saharan Africa who has a number of household duties to attend to, namely putting food on her family’s table.
More success has been seen in Nairobi, Kenya by a company that produces charcoal stoves. Burn is a startup that has garnered international attention and investment in recent years, as their charcoal stoves are more efficient, are healthier for users, and can be purchased through a low interest loan that local banks are willing to offer. The path forward includes a wide variety of approaches, ranging from private business and investment to humanitarian aid that the U.N., World Bank, and W.H.O. can provide to struggling businesses. Even so, the world’s top priority is controlling the spread of COVID-19, with an unfortunate side effect being a decrease in funds and attention towards other global health problems such as indoor air pollution, and even the exacerbation of respiratory problems.
If you’re interested in helping, the Clean Cooking Alliance is an organization that invests in clean cookstove technologies, especially in the developing world. They provide a number of grants to technologies that fit their specifications, and I would highly recommend donating. The link is attached below.
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