Smoke exposure fatal for women

Gugulethu Nyazema, Zimbabwe
(First published in Daily News, Zimbabwe on 13th March 2013): Zimbabwean women are suffering health risks arising from being exposed to indoor smoke. But the problem is not unique to Zimbabwe: nearly three billion people, most living in low-income countries, rely on solid fuel for cooking, lighting and heating. Health experts said the great challenge is that Zimbabweans are unaware of the problem, making them more vulnerable to it. “The diseases that women get from the smoke exposure occur only after many years of and this means that they are unlikely to make the connection between exposure and the disease,” local doctor Manikai Nyandoro said. Nyandoro said that the best way to inform people and engage them for change is to select “change agents” in the community who are affected by the problem.

Rudimentary wood-fired cook stoves and open fires emit fine particles, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants at levels up to 100 times higher than the recommended limits set by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Mortality and burden of disease attributable to selected major risks, indoor air pollution is responsible for 2,7 percent of the global burden of disease.

The local experts said that there are three types of lung diseases that have been shown to have a strong association with solid fuel smoke: acute lower respiratory infections (ALRIs) in children, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) in women, and lung cancer in women exposed to coal smoke.

WHO estimates that nearly two million people die each year from diseases caused by unhealthy cook stove technologies, including more than one million people, mostly women, who die from COPD. “Indoor air pollution from biomass fuel smoke is an important issue because this is a fuel source that is widely used by poor people and is associated with serious health issues that make poor people even poorer.

It particularly affects women and children in poor communities. The clearest health consequence of breathing this smoke is in women who can develop lung cancer and serious and chronic lung disease that result in death,” said Nyandoro.

“In addition, the smoke promotes the development of pneumonia in small children, the most important cause of death in this age group.” In Africa, particularly in rural areas, indoor pollution is rampant, but it is not regarded as a serious public health issue. “There are a series of steps that can be taken. Clearly, the most dangerous situation is with open fires (for heating or cooking) within the same rooms that people inhabit.

The first step is to move the cooking from inside the house to a “shed” in the backyard with a roof but relatively open walls to improve ventilation.

The second step is to make a protection around the fire (the best is to use an enclosed “stove” made of ceramic or metal) so that the smoke can be directed away from people. The final step is to improve the ventilation for the smoke from the stove by constructing a stove pipe to direct the smoke out of doors and to open ventilation paths (either under the eaves of the house or through windows) to reduce the level of the smoke in the living area,” said Nyandoro.

He added that all of these steps can be taken with very little cost and can be done by the people themselves without outside assistance. Meanwhile Angela Jackson Morris, the technical grants officer of the Tobacco Control, International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union), UK in an interview through e-mail said women’s exposure to not only tobacco smoke but also to a smoky environment due to poor quality cooking stoves, or having to work in very dusty environment, makes them very vulnerable to a range of lung conditions.

“Smoking itself is linked to lung cancer, cervical cancer as well as these critical conditions. Pregnant women exposed to tobacco smoke are at risk of deformities and restrictive development of the foetus. “So the key challenge is to work with the government in low and middle income countries and to come up with strategies to prevent women from tobacco and smoking in particular,” Morris said.

He added that the union focuses on low and middle income countries, to help people protect their lung health. “So, we work in two key ways — the first way is to give technical advice to the government to design a programme to make people aware about the risks of smoking; to write and implement laws that will protect people in public places from exposure to second hand smoke; to raise tobacco taxes making it less affordable for the people,” she said.

Gugulethu Nyazema, Zimbabwe
Citizen News Service - CNS
(First published in Daily News, Zimbabwe on 13th March 2013)