Cooking Catastrophe: Chronic Exposure to Burning Biomass. (Science Selections)

By Hood, Ernie | Environmental Health Perspectives, November 2002 | Go to article overview

Cooking Catastrophe: Chronic Exposure to Burning Biomass. (Science Selections)


Hood, Ernie, Environmental Health Perspectives


With about half of the world's population relying on biomass fuels (wood, agricultural residues, and charcoal) as the primary source of household energy, research attention is increasingly focusing on this cause of indoor air pollution. In India, 5-6% of the nation's burden of disease has been estimated to be attributable to biomass combustion. Although biomass burning is clearly a major health risk factor, few quantitative exposure assessments have been performed in India to help clarify the exposure-response relationship. Now, a team of Indian researchers led by Kalpana Balakrishnan from the Sri Ramachandra Medical College and Research Institute (Deemed University) have assessed and quantified exposures to respirable combustion products in 436 rural households in the southern Indian state ofTamil Nadu [EHP 110:1069-1075].

Exposure to the respirable particles and gases generated by the combustion of biomass fuels has been linked in several studies to adverse health effects such as chronic bronchitis and acute respiratory infections in Children. Although a few studies similar to this one have been conducted previously in northern India, none have been done in the south, where the climate and culture are very different, resulting in patterns and concentrations of exposure at variance with data obtained in the north.

Biomass fuels are seldom used for heating in the warmer southern regions, but are widely used for both indoor and outdoor cooking. About 90% of the households studied used only biomass fuels, and even among the households that used comparatively clean fuels such as kerosene, 95% used biomass fuels to cook at least one meal a day. In addition, say the authors, women's movements are less restricted in the south--unlike in northern India, women in the south do not cover their faces and usually may move outside the house even in the presence of men, factors that could substantially reduce exposures. …

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