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Investment in cleaner household energy yields major health and economic benefits

New report calls attention to health threat from indoor air pollution
by the World Health Organization

Every day for the next 10 years, 485,000 people would need to gain access to cleaner fuels in order to halve by 2015 the population relying on solid fuels. A new report from the World Health Organization, Fuel for Life: Household Energy and Health, demonstrates that investing in cleaner household fuels can yield a seven-fold economic benefit in health and productivity gains.

Cooking with wood, dung, coal and other solid fuels on open fires or simple stoves is a daily reality for more than half of the world's population. This leads to high levels of indoor air pollution, a major risk factor for pneumonia among children and chronic respiratory disease among adults. Globally, pneumonia remains the single most important child killer and is responsible for two million deaths a year.

Every year, the killer in the kitchen is responsible for 1.5 million deaths. Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia are particularly affected, with 396,000 and 483,000 annual deaths, respectively. Indoor air pollution also disproportionately affects women and children. In 2002, cooking with solid fuels was responsible for nearly 800,000 deaths among children and more than 500,000 deaths among women.

The good news is that effective solutions are available. Liquefied petroleum gas, biogas and other cleaner fuels represent the healthiest alternative. Switching from a traditional stove to an improved stove substantially reduces indoor smoke.

"Making cleaner fuels and improved stoves available to millions of poor people in developing countries will reduce child mortality and improve women's health," said Dr. Lee Jong-wook, WHO director-general. "In addition to the health gains, household energy programmes can help lift families out of poverty and accelerate development progress."

On average, 100 million more homes using liquefied petroleum gas, biogas or modern fuels for cooking would lead to 473 million fewer women, children and men exposed to harmful indoor air pollution, and 282 thousand fewer deaths from respiratory diseases per year.

The economic case for adopting practical solutions on a large scale is just as strong as the humanitarian case. For as little as six dollars, families can install better ventilated and fuel efficient stoves. A total cost of $13 billion per year to halve the number of people worldwide cooking with solid fuels by 2015 shows a payback of $91 billion per year, highlights the report. Making improved stoves available to half of those still burning biomass fuels and coal on traditional stoves would save $34 billion in fuel expenditure every year, and generate an economic return of $105 billion every year over a 10 year period.

The majority of these costs are borne at the household level which is also where the majority of the benefits occur. Nevertheless, donor investments are required upfront for designing appropriate technologies, setting up local businesses, and putting micro-credit systems in place. Developing energy infrastructure in this way would not only mean less illness and death but also less time spent ill, collecting fuel and cooking. With more time available, children would do better at school, while their mothers could engage in childcare, agriculture or other income-generating activities as a way to break the vicious cycle of poverty.

"It is a travesty that 1.5 million lives a year --- many of those of children whose lives have not even started --- are snuffed out every year because of needless exposure to indoor smoke. We have simple, affordable solutions; let us ensure that they reach the people who can benefit from --- and live by --- using them," said Dr. Maria Neira, WHO's director for public health and environment.

Some low-income countries with enormous financial constraints are already responding to the challenge, and programmes are operating effectively and producing results. The same commitment needs to be replicated worldwide.

The problem of indoor air pollution has been around since the Stone Age, yet international development agendas fail to recognize that missing out on clean energy equals missing out on life. Today's report provides an overview of the global situation on indoor air pollution, and calls for vigorous action to close the household energy gap by developing energy infrastructure to meet basic household needs in a healthy, safe and sustainable way.

The report is available online at http://www.who.int/indoorair/en.

 

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