The fatal dance of Firewood and cigarette smoke

Chhatra Karki, CNS Correspondent, Nepal
The degradation of indoor air quality is a critical issue throughout the world today, which is convicted for causing severe impacts on human health. World Health Organization (WHO) reports that around 38 million of the global population is forced to face untimely death every year due to household air pollution. To aggravate the matter, indoor air pollution is catapulting the number of the people contracting maladies like pneumonia, stroke, ischemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, and others.

In addition to these, the ‘fraternal’ relationship of low birth weight, tuberculosis, cataract, nasopharyngeal, and laryngeal cancer with household air pollution has already been affirmed.

The excessive amount of harmful gases and dust particles directly affect the environment that has an adverse bearing on the air quality. Experts view that elements like biological pollutants (mold and bacteria), second hand tobacco smoke, radioactive gaseous elements “radon” emitted by culinary burning fuel, asbestos and formaldehyde have devastated the air quality.

Firewood is the major source of fuel energy in the households of a majority of people of low-income developing countries. Various studies reinforce the fact that women of such countries are regularly exposed to firewood smoke, as a result of which they suffer from some serious health problems. According to the WHO, around 3 billion people in the world get their culinary activities done with biomass (wood, animal dung, and crop waste) and coal as a major source of fuel, which is, in fact, the major catalyst of air pollution.

Surprising though it may seem, it is the children who are more prone to the harmful effects of indoor air pollution vis-à-vis their physical growth and development. In spite of their small physique, they surpass the adults when it comes to respiratory rate and volume. Their shorter physical height makes them more proximate to the ground which in turn makes them vulnerable to considerably larger amounts of heavy and fatal airborne chemicals. Rishi Bastakoti, Vanier Scholar (Canada) and former Executive Director of Resource Identification and Management Society Nepal (RIMS Nepal)  opines that these cause the increase in their already high rate of heartbeat. Such chemicals are absorbed within the blood, which results in the expansion of tissues at an abnormally accelerated rate.

The WHO reports more than 2 million annual child mortality in the world due to critical respiratory diseases, especially pneumonia, spawned by household air pollution, which accounts for over 50% of the premature deaths of children below five years of age.

Drilling down the WHO report in the Nepalese context, death toll from indoor air pollution is 7500 every year, out of which 4820 are children below five years of age who become victims of Acute Respiratory Infections (ARI). It may sound implausible, but indoor pollution in Nepal is much more fatal than its outdoor counterpart. Therefore, the family members who are required to stay indoor most of the time are susceptible to its adverse health impacts. Statistical source reveals that more than 80% of the total population of Nepal is based in the rural areas and due to indigence they have to rely on biomass fuels as a major source of combustion energy. Win Rock International Nepal validates this fact stating that about 85% of the total energy consumption in Nepal is compensated from the traditional biomass fuels.

Anachronous fire oven induce greater amount of smoke from the firewood. According to Bastakoti, due to lack of proper ventilation system in the rural areas, such firewood smoke inflicts on children the risk of contracting ARI, low birth weight, pulmonary tuberculosis, laryngeal cancer and cataracts. Likewise, the women in rural areas who are limited to household and kitchen works are also prone to problems like chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive lung disease. The gaseous and metallic emissions from biomass fuel, like carbon monoxide, benzene, potassium, and methyl chloride affects the heart that multiplies the chance of cancer.

According to Dr Gan Quan of The International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease (The Union), there are two main sources of indoor air pollution, secondhand smoke and particulates from use of biomass fuels. To prevent exposure to secondhand smoke, smokers should not smoke inside or in front of non-smokers (children in this case).  He further says, “Particulate exposure from biomass fuels can be avoided through upgrading to more efficient fuels such as natural gas.” 

Chhatra Karki, Citizen News Service - CNS 
10 September 2014