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Health
1 in 8 Eight Deaths Are Caused By Air Pollution — But Mostly Not The Kind You Might Imagine
March 25, 2014
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An Indian cook working over an indoor coal stove in Mumbai (Photo: AP Photo/Rajesh Nirgude)

The World Health Organization released a new report today about the worldwide health burden of air pollution, and the results are pretty staggering: an estimated seven million people in 2012 died as a result of air pollution exposure, a number that's double previous estimates. It also makes air pollution the number-one environmental health risk in the world.

“The risks from air pollution are now far greater than previously thought or understood, particularly for heart disease and strokes,” Dr Maria Neira, Director of the WHO’s Department for Public Health, Environmental and Social Determinants of Health, said in a release. “Few risks have a greater impact on global health today than air pollution; the evidence signals the need for concerted action to clean up the air we all breathe.”

And while the idea of air pollution might conjure images of smog-laden cities in China and Europe (not to mention Southern Ontario), the majority of deaths are actually linked to indoor emissions.

According to the report, about 4.3 million deaths are caused by households using coal, wood or dung as their primary cooking or heating fuel. About 2.9 billion people worldwide live in such a household, and they're particularly concentrated in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific regions. Women and young children are often the hardest hit, since they spend the most time indoors. Indeed, over half of all premature deaths in children under five are due to pneumonia linked to the soot inhaled from such stoves.

“Poor women and children pay a heavy price from indoor air pollution since they spend more time at home breathing in smoke and soot from leaky coal and wood cook stoves," said Dr Flavia Bustreo, the WHO Assistant Director-General Family, Women and Children’s Health.

Of course, outdoor air pollution is also a serious environmental hazard, responsible for 3.7 million deaths worldwide (the outdoor and indoor numbers don't add up to the total estimate of 7 million since there's overlap between the two groups).  

The leading causes of death from the two types of pollution were stroke, heart disease and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

For more on the effects of air pollution, see the WHO report (PDF).

Many of the solutions to the problem of indoor air pollution are well-known: cleaner-burning fuels, like liquid petroleum gas; improved stoves with more complete combustion; replacing combustion stoves with electricity; installation of chimneys, smoke hoods and well-placed windows. But the financial and cultural challenges of changing traditional cooking methods in developing countries can be hard to overcome. 

One group that's working on the issue is the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, which mobilizes resources toward the goal of getting 100 million households to switch to clean cookstoves by 2020. The Alliance produced this video in 2012, which tells the story of an Indian woman whose family adopted a clean, efficient cookstove:

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