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The Gendered Burden of Household Air Pollution

Cooking is something people have various memories about, especially fond ones concerning cooking a meal with family and friends for example. However, cooking for fun in a non-hazardous environment is not possible for everyone. Millions of people who cook still use solid fuels like wood, crop waste, dung, charcoal, and coal. Breathing in the small particles produced for a prolonged period can lead to many serious conditions. In poorly ventilated buildings, indoor smoke can be even worse with levels of fine particles being even worse than normal. Annually, about 3.2 million people die prematurely from conditions related to household air pollution. It is even worse in low-and-middle-income countries where household air pollution is the top environmental health risk and a main reason for non-communicable conditions like strokes, lung cancer, heart disease, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Exposure is high among women and children who spend much of their time near the domestic heart as many cultures assign and overburden women, in particular, to cook and take care of the household. About half of all deaths occuring from lower respiratory infection for children under 5 years old is due to breathing in soot from household air pollution.

As well as breathing in the air, there is the added labor of women and children gathering the fuel, which can raise the risk of injuries and use up much time, leading to less leisure time. Many of the fuels and technologies utilized for cooking in these households are safety hazards in general. Ingesting kerosene by accident is the leading cause of childhood poisonings and can result in severe burns and injuries occurring in low to middle-income countries. The lack of electricity in many countries with higher levels of household air pollution causes many people to use unsafe devices and fuels like kerosene lamps for lighting, leading to more hazardous particles being inhaled. There is also black carbon and methane emitted by stoves not working properly, resulting in short-lived climate pollutants. Household air pollution also largely contributes to outdoor air pollution.

In response, the World Health Organization (WHO) has created guidelines for indoor air quality, giving health recommendations and strategies for cleaner households. They have also updated and made tools and resources like the Clean Household Energy Solutions Toolkit for countries to find stakeholders who are involved in household public health designs. There is also general support for international governments to determine the costs and health benefits of various household energy alternatives. WHO has also worked with countries and surveying agencies to create questions for national surveys like gender consequences from household energy practices. While it is a growing concern, efforts are being made to ensure better alternative energy sources for household cooking.

Thank you for reading!

-Siri Nikku




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