One billion exposed to excessive indoor pollution

The World Health Organization (WHO) has announced that as many as one billion people, mostly women and children, are regularly exposed to levels of indoor air pollution exceeding WHO guidelines by up to 100 times.

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The statistic was revealed at a WHO strategy meeting on Air Quality and Health where it was announced that the highest air pollution exposures occur in the indoor environment, particularly in developing countries.

The WHO says that this is because people in many developing countries cook and heat with solid fuels, using basic apparatus, with poor ventilation. In India, where 80% of households use solid fuel, there are estimates that half a million children die annually from indoor air pollution, especially from acute respiratory infections. The figure for sub-Saharan Africa is roughly the same. In Latin American countries, where one quarter of households use solid fuels, an estimated 30,000 people die each year from acute respiratory infections attributable to indoor air quality.

Another surprising statistic revealed at 14 September’s meeting is that nearly three-fifths of the total global exposure to particulate matter occurs in the rural areas of developing countries leading to as many as three million deaths a year.

The WHO says that children are especially vulnerable to high levels of air pollution and that studies have shown that 60% of the estimated number of deaths from acute respiratory diseases occur before 15 years of age, double the figure for all diseases as a whole. A WHO Task Force on the Protection of Children’s Environmental Health has been created to address these problems.

“WHO would like to provide its 191 Member States with irrefutable evidence that air pollution causes disproportionately heavy burden of disease,” said Dr Michael Repacholi, WHO’s co-ordinator of Occupational and Environmental Health. “We’d like to provide them with a sound environmental policy framework and actions applicable to different settings and to different socio-economic conditions. In short, we’d like to provide them with a proper strategy to eliminate avoidable air pollutants and thus reduce this disease burden in a cost-effective way.”

The meeting identified major peaks to be scaled on the way to creating a WHO strategy on air pollution and health. In public health terms, air pollution is not an exact science. Often, health effects that may be attributable to air pollution can also be closely linked to other risk factors. That is why establishing a health effects database on air pollution is seen by WHO as an important stepping stone towards achieving these goals. Before this can be done, however, all parties involved should hammer out a unified methodology for collecting comparable data worldwide to support sound, science-based assessments of health impacts, WHO said.

The database would help to identify hotspots of health-threatening air pollution levels and populations of high risk, as well as keeping track of major sources of pollution and their effect on public health. Economic costs to society and individuals of health impairment due to air pollution, as well as cost-effective intervention strategies, will also be addressed, WHO said.

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