I am an asthmatic. Walking or biking behind a black-smoke-belching truck makes me choke, I mean really choke. I am sure it sounds familiar to other asthmatics or to those who have friends with respiratory problems.
The World Health Organization last month classified outdoor air pollution as a leading carcinogen. It particularly singled out particulate matter – the stuff that makes up the black smoke from those diesel trucks – as a carcinogen for humans.
On the heels of that news came word from China that record-air pollution levels nearly shut down one of northeastern China's largest cities, Harbin, forcing schools to suspend classes, snarling traffic and closing the city airport. An index measuring particulate matter reached a reading of 1,000 in some parts of the city, home to some 11 million people. A level above 300 is considered hazardous, while the WHO recommends a daily level of no more than 20.
Imagine the fate of my fellow sufferers, the asthmatics. Needless to say there was surge of hospital emergency room visits in Harbin on October 21.
Last week, I had the honor of speaking to the UN Security Council about an increasingly dangerous threat facing cities and countries around the world, a threat that, more and more, is influencing everything that they and we do: climate change.
World Bank President Jim Kim was in Russia talking with G20 finance ministers about the same thing – the need to combat climate change. Every day, we’re hearing growing concerns from leaders around the world about climate change and its impact.
If we needed any reminder of the immediacy and the urgency of the situation, Australia Foreign Minister Bob Carr and our good friend President Tong of Kiribati spoke by video of the security implication of climate effects on the Pacific region. Perhaps most moving of all, Minister Tony deBrum from the Marshall Islands recounted how, 35 years ago, he had come to New York as part of a Marshall Islands delegation requesting the Security Council’s support for their independence. Now, when not independence but survival is at stake, he is told that this is not the Security Council’s function. He pointed to their ambassador to the UN and noted that her island, part of the Marshall Islands, no longer exists. The room was silent.
It may come as a surprise to know that half of the global population uses biomass (wood, agricultural wastes and dung) and coal for cooking. For Sub-Saharan Africa where electrification rates outside of South Africa are only 28%, biomass and coal are the primary cooking fuels for over three fourths of the population. Combustion of unprocessed biomass fuels, especially in open or poorly ventilated stoves, emits high concentrations of pollutant mixtures – particulates, and carbon dioxide, methane, and carbon monoxide – associated with a number of respiratory and other diseases and is the leading cause of death among infants and children worldwide.
Since the task of cooking is mainly done by women and girls, it is they who face daily exposure to levels of pollution which are estimated to be the equivalent of consuming two packets of cigarettes a day (Kammen, 1995; Ezzati and Kammen, 2001).
Smoke from domestic fires kills nearly two million people each year, and sickens millions more. This places indoor air pollution as almost as critical a health threat as poor sanitation and AIDS, and a greater threat than malaria. Without systematic changes, household biomass use will result in an estimated 8.1 million Lower Respiratory Infection (LRI) deaths among young children in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, between 2000 and 2030 (Bailis, Ezzati, Kammen, 2007).
All of these factors highlight the critical need to evaluate the effectiveness of cookstoves at not only reducing emission, but in impacting health.