Magazine article Geographical

The Killer Inside: While the West Tries to Work out How to Clean Up the Air in Its Cities, More and More People in the Developing World Are Being Killed by Indoor Air Pollution

Magazine article Geographical

The Killer Inside: While the West Tries to Work out How to Clean Up the Air in Its Cities, More and More People in the Developing World Are Being Killed by Indoor Air Pollution

Article excerpt

The level of pollution that hit London in the early 1950s was so great that it caused a change in the law and saw the beginning of a new wave of environmental awareness. But even at their peak, pollution levels during this brief episode weren't much different to those present every day of the year in the kitchens of the poorest third of humanity.

While in many parts of the developed world people are worrying about the removal of the last few motes from the air, 2.4 billion people in poorer countries are still reliant upon fuel sources that generate a noxious cocktail of particulate matter, carbon monoxide, formaldehyde, benzene and polyaromatic hydrocarbons. In the West, we use clean gas and electricity for our cooking and heating, but in developing nations, people must use various types of biomass fuel--for example, dung, crop residues, wood and charcoal. These fuels produce levels of pollution that the UN Development Programme has likened to smoking two packets of cigarettes a day.

Known as indoor air pollution, this toxic soup has some alarming effects on human health. It kills at least 1.6 million people each year, mostly women and children because they spend the most time around the fire. The mortality rate among children under five--about one million a year--is higher than that for malaria, HIV/AIDS and measles. It's the fourth biggest "killer in the world's poorest countries--only malnutrition, HIV/AIDS and poor sanitation are responsible for more death and misery--yet it receives far less attention and money than other, less prolific killers.

In a report published earlier this year, development NGO Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG) dubbed indoor air pollution the silent killer, not just because of the stealthy way it permeates the lives and lungs of its victims, but because no-one is talking about it. When the World Health Organization published its list of the top ten threats to human health, along with the efforts to control them, indoor air pollution was the only one not to be covered.

So why is indoor air pollution being ignored? Well, there is the thorny issue of who the 'victims' are--women and children, whose problems often don't receive the attention they deserve. However, perhaps more pertinent is the fact that until very recently, there was insufficient evidence to link indoor air pollution from cooking fires to ill health or death. …

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