Indoor air pollution kills 3 million

Posted: 18 December 2000

As many as one billion people, mostly women and children, are regularly exposed to dangerous levels of indoor air pollution, causing some 3 million deaths every year, according to WHO. The pollution often exceeds WHO guidelines by up to 100 times, according to figures revealed at a WHO meeting on Air Quality and Health held in Geneva in September 2000.

Air pollution is a major environmental health problem affecting both developed and developing countries. This is a truly global concern involving ambient air quality in cities as well as indoor air quality including the workplace, in both rural and urban areas.

The highest air pollution exposures occur in the indoor environment, particularly in developing countries. Over half the world's population still cooks with solid fuels - wood, coal, dung, crop residues and charcoal. A deadly combination of solid fuels, inefficient stoves and poor ventilation triggers off a complex mix of health damaging pollutants in homes.

In India, where 80 per cent of households use solid fuel, an estimated half million children die annually from indoor air pollution, especially from acute respiratory infections. The figure for sub-Saharan Africa is roughly the same. In Latin American countries, where one quarter of households use solid fuels, an estimated 30,000 people die each year from acute respiratory infections attributable to indoor air quality.

As always seems to be the case, it is the world's poorest people who suffer most. As a rule, they face a cocktail of risk factors of which air pollution is just one; others include malnutrition, unsafe water and poor health care infrastructure. Malnutrition, unsafe water and use of solid fuels indoors together cause over one quarter of all deaths in the least developed countries.

Children are of particular concern. They are especially vulnerable to high levels of air pollution. The Global Burden of Disease study conducted by WHO in 1990 has clearly shown that 30 per cent of the estimated number of deaths from all diseases occur before 15 years of age, but for acute respiratory diseases, the figure is twice as high.

Despite increasing knowledge about harmful health effects of air pollution, preventive action is often slow to follow. "WHO would like to provide its 191 Member States with irrefutable evidence that air pollution causes disproportionately heavy burden of disease," explains Dr Michael Repacholi, WHO Coordinator, Occupational and Environmental Health. "We'd like to provide them with a sound environmental policy framework and actions applicable to different settings and to different socio-economic conditions. In short, we'd like to provide them with a proper strategy to eliminate avoidable air pollutants and thus reduce this disease burden in a cost-effective way."

See feature article: Cooking smoke - a silent killer