Paddy stubble outside causes pollution? Cooking rice, dal the Indian way is also harmful

Household air pollution is a leading risk factor for disease and premature deaths globally

Women and kids are more vulnerable to the risk of exposure

Sharat K Verma

The Hush Post, New Delhi: If you think by staying indoors you can guard yourself against the severe pollution that has engulfed the country these days, especially northern India, you are mistaken then. In fact, indoor or household air pollution (HAP) is equally dangerous for the human health and is a leading risk factor for disease and death particularly among women and kids globally. Worldwide every year HAP causes 4 million premature deaths that include more than 1.2 million deaths in India.

A woman cooking in a traditional way. This type of cooking indoors causes various types of pulmonary diseases in a person. Photo: Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

While northern India is facing a crisis-like situation in the form of killer smog that is making people’s life a hell, it is shocking to know that there cannot be any relief from pollution just by staying in the comfort of one’s house. And the government cannot save the children from such an alarming situation by just declaring holidays in schools. At home, the kids are vulnerable to HAP.

Delhi is worst affected by the pollution problem these days. Speaking in the context of pollution in Delhi, Dr Sarath Guttikunda, Director of Urban Emissions said, “One of the most surprising sources of Delhi’s air pollution is the smoke coming from the millions of cooking and space heating fires outside of the city limits.”

“Urban areas such as Delhi cannot solve their air pollution issues without first addressing the issue of cooking, space heating, and household air pollution in the households beyond that surround them,” Dr Guttikunda added.

According to a report by the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, India is home to some of the world’s most polluted cities. An Alliance-funded research shows that household air pollution is a major contributor. By evaluating the impact of household energy consumption on 640 districts across India, researchers found that almost 30 per cent of the country’s outdoor air pollution is due to household energy combustion. In some districts, household air pollution contributes up to 50 per cent of outdoor air pollution, making a clear case that reducing outdoor air pollution requires addressing air pollution at the household level as well.

As per the Alliance report, exposure to smoke from traditional cookstoves and open fires – the primary means of cooking and heating for nearly three billion people in the developing world – causes more than 4 million premature deaths, including more than 1.2 million deaths in India, every year. Last year itself more than 2.6 million premature deaths were caused by HAP across the globe.  In our country, according to a Greenpeace India report as many as 1.2 million deaths take place every year due to air pollution.

Cooking smoke contributes to a range of chronic illnesses and acute health impacts such as early childhood pneumonia, emphysema, cataracts, lung cancer, bronchitis, cardiovascular disease, and low birth weight. Women and young children are the most affected, with more than 100,000 children in India dying every year as a result of acute lower respiratory infections caused by the use of solid fuels, states the report.

Speaking in context of world, approximately 3 billion people still cook food and heat their homes using solid fuels (like wood, charcoal, coal and dung) in open fires and leaky stoves. Majority of them are poor, and hail from under-developed and developing countries.

According to a World Health Organisation (WHO) report, such inefficient cooking fuels and technologies produce high levels of household air pollution with a range of health-damaging pollutants, including small soot particles that penetrate deep into the lungs. In poorly ventilated dwellings, indoor smoke can be 100 times higher than acceptable levels for fine particles. Exposure is particularly high among women and young children, who spend the most time near the domestic hearth.

What is the solution? The solution lies in switching to clean fuels or low-polluting improved stoves. For this people’s behaviour needs to be changed. On the part of government, system-wide policies are needed for large-scale changes in clean cooking and household energy use to reduce HAP. Effective policies incentivize clean cooking and fuel uses through subsidies and campaigns, while discouraging the burning of polluting fuels by banning them or stopping subsidies for kerosene.

In this context Antonio Guterres, Secretary-General of the United States has said, “I have seen firsthand the importance of access to energy and clean cook stoves… it must play a central role in our work to ensure the realization of human needs and fundamental rights.”