Women need protection from indoor air pollution

Bernard Appiah, Ghana
A rat burrows into a small bushy hill, and makes the hole its abode, supplying food and leafy "clothing" into it. Men or boys, dressed in sweat-drenched shirts bent on having bush meat put fire materials like dry leaves in front of the hole, light a match, resulting in fire and smoke. Then they begin to fan the smoke directly into the hole resulting in the sound "pupupupupupu" while hunting dogs and other interested men anxiously look on. Roughly 10 to 20 minutes later, the smoke forces the unfortunate rat to jump out of its abode into the paths of its enemies who chase it and literally arrest it.

Such is life in rural Ghana where rats have been battling with smoke, bush meat hunters, and expert hunting dogs. But while even rats cannot afford to inhale the smoke, which has "indoor" air pollutants, some women in Africa, seem to expose their lives to indoor air pollutants mainly through use of cooking fuel. Efforts are needed to address the hazards of indoor air pollutants, especially among women. “Around 3 billion people still cook and heat their homes using solid fuels in open fires and leaky stoves,” says the World Health Organization. “Most are poor, and live in developing countries.”

Dr. George Mensah, Public Health Specialist with the Accra Metro Health Directorate says women are more prone to indoor air pollution because in many homes they use firewood and charcoal for cooking, and many also cook for their livelihoods. “It’s difficult to deal with the challenges of indoor air pollution in women because cooking is their way of life, and way of earning money,” he adds.

Dr. Mensah says Ghana’s effort to keep women away from using firewood and charcoal is in danger. “The cost of liquefied petroleum gas, which is being encouraged for use in cooking, has just been increased by 50%, so some people may not be able to buy the gas, and may therefore use more charcoal and firewood, which can have many health consequences, especially diseases of the lungs,” says Dr. Mensah.

According to the WHO, among nearly 2 million people worldwide who die annually from the potential effects of indoor air pollution, 2% are due to lung cancer, 44% are due to pneumonia, and 54% die from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) — a group of lung diseases that make breathing difficult as a result of their tendency to block the airflow.

Many factors, and not just use of charcoal and fire woods, are also implicated in diseases of the lungs that especially affect women. Dr. Angela Jackson Morris, Technical Grants Officer, Tobacco Control, International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union), UK, tells India-based Citizen News Service (CNS): “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.”

Dr. Chen-Yuan Chiang, Director, Department of Lung Health and Non Communicable Diseases, of The Union, Taiwan, says many interventions can be implemented in resource-poor settings to protect women from lung diseases related to indoor air pollution. These include making available alternate, cleaner types of fuel that produce less harmful smoke, improving access to better stoves used for cooking and heating, improving the quality of the ventilation used for the stoves and providing education for behavioral change.

A Ghanaian woman who appears to have been convinced to use liquefied petroleum gas, partly because of information she heard on television, is Accra-based Phydora Appiah-Kubi. She tells CNS that women should also consider the non-monetary costs associated with using charcoal and firewood.

"For charcoal, especially the hard type, one would have to break it into several pieces, and fan it several times, and that is time-consuming," says Appiah-Kubi, adding that even most women who cook and sell food to the public now use liquefied petroleum gas.

“I understand that we may not have the money to buy gas for cooking, but let us try to move away from using charcoal and firewood in this modern age, says Appiah-Kubi.

Bernard Appiah, Ghana
Citizen News Service - CNS
March 2013

(This article was first published in Joy Online, Ghana)