Kitchen smoke is major cause of third world death

Indoor air pollution has been identified as one of the main causes of death and disease in the world's poorest countries in a recent study by the World Health Organisation (WHO).

Thick acrid smoke rising from stoves and open fires in homes in the developing world has been revealed as a silent and previously unreported killer, taking the lives of around 1.6 million people every year. That amounts to one death every 20 seconds being caused by “the killer in the kitchen”.

“Nearly half the world continues to cook with solid fuels such as dung, wood, agricultural residues and coal,” the United Nations’ agency stated. “Smoke from burning these fuels gives off a poisonous cocktail of particles and chemicals that bypass the body’s defences, and this more than doubles the risk of respiratory illnesses such as bronchitis and pneumonia.”

According to figures from the WHO, the indoor concentration of health-damaging pollutants from a typical wood-fired cooking stove creates carbon monoxide and other noxious fumes at anywhere between seven and 500 times over tolerable levels.

This means that rural women and children are particularly at risk as they spend long amounts of time indoors for days on end, surrounded by high levels of poisonous smoke in their homes that far exceed international safety standards.

It is also not economically sustainable for these rural people to use large quantities of wood to burn as, according to the report, long hours spent collecting wood could be more constructively used for paid work that would raise the household’s income.

The WHO points out that finding cleaner alternatives to these dirty energy sources is one solution to this problem, but that governments, the aid community, civil society and other key actors must be made to recognise that this indoor smoke is a huge blight on the lives on people in the third world and take action on it.

“We need the same attention paid to this killer in the kitchen as is paid to all other major killers,” the WHO urged.

By Jane Kettle

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