India: Cooking fires poisoning the air we breathe, says govt study

Every year, 1 million people — among them at least 100,000 children – die prematurely in India because of the simple act of cooking, the Institute of Health Metrics and Evaluation’s latest study says.

Ambient air pollution kills 627,426, road accidents 273,835 and complications from inadequate sanitation cause 111,624 deaths.

Cooking with polluting fuel constitutes a significant health and environmental hazard, indoor air pollution affecting more Indians than residents of any country. A major, though under-reported, source of this is cooking on open fires and traditional chullhas. Fumes from household cooking fires trigger up to 30% of fine-particulate ambient pollution, a government study shows.

According to the Global Alliance for Clean Cook stoves, a public-private partnership hosted by the UN Foundation, 3 billion people the world over rely on biomass as primary sources of cooking and heating. Indians are worst hit, for more than 70% of the population lives in its vast rural stretches.  More than 4 million premature deaths happen around the world because of air pollution, roughly 25% of these in India, the Global Burden of Disease study, 2012. says.    Indoor pollution can trigger pulmonary and respiratory disorders in women and children under five, including pneumonia, cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. Other hazards include adverse pregnancy outcomes (low birth weight), cardiovascular diseases and cataracts, not to mention burns.

Every day, 780 million Indians use traditional chulhas to cook. Millions of girls and women live in energy scarcity without access to clean cooking fuels. Women spend long hours gathering wood, twigs, and cow dung. Travelling distances in search of fuel puts rural women at safety risks.
Cooking emissions are a leading source of harmful black carbon, according to a study by Dr Veerabhadran Ramanathan of the University of California at San Diego, and can hit agricultural production.

Research shows adoption of cleaner, efficient cooking methods and fuels help reduce negative impacts to health and environment. So why don’t these stoves and fuels reach homes? That’s because people simply aren’t aware.
“India has the capacity and innovation to be a global leader in developing clean cook stoves and fuels — at the government level and in the private sector,” said Radha Muthiah, CEO of the Global Alliance for Clean Cook stoves.

To address the issue, the global community met at the Cook Stoves Future Summit in New York last November to discuss scaling up cleaner cooking solutions. Delegates outlined solutions to build momentum around research, standards, manufacturing, distribution and finance, including in India.
Politicians and policy-makers are fostering programmes to improve lives of Indians. But with government attention and support from private and non-profit sectors, one public health initiative shows promise in helping Indian families: A clean cooking movement.

Such a movement should include not only efforts to develop and distribute stoves that burn local biomass cleanly, but also efforts to expand clean fuel use. Solutions exist and the government should include Clean Air as part of Swachh Bharat Abhiyan.