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Indoor pollution proves deadly

In many parts of rural Nepal, women spend on average of five hours a day in smoke-filled kitchens such as these - a fact underming their health. Naresh Newar/IRIN
Sitadevi Khadka, 60, spends hours in her smoke-filled kitchen cooking for her family, rubbing her eyes and coughing uncontrollably.

Living in the remote Basamari village of Nawalparasis District, 200km west of the capital, Kathmandu, Khadka is too poor to buy a kerosene or gas stove, leaving her, like many others, dependent on wood from the nearby forest.

"What alternative do we have but to use whatever is available and affordable?" asked Khadka, explaining that the use of wood, animal dung and vegetable wastes — biomass fuel — for household energy, is normal.

"I know it's not healthy with so much smoke inside our kitchen but there is no other option," said Khadka.

But while the use of biomass fuel may be routine and cheaper for rural households in the Himalayan nation, its impact is proving dangerous as the biomass creates indoor pollution, seriously affecting people's health, according to specialists.

There is strong evidence of indoor pollution causing pneumonia and other acute respiratory infections (ARI) among under-fives and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer in adults, according to the UN World Health Organization report, Indoor Air Pollution: National Burden of Disease Estimates.

An estimated 7,500 people in Nepal die annually as a result. Of these, 4,820 children under-five die from ARI and 2,680 adults die of COPD, the report said.

"Nepal's indoor pollution is much worse than its outdoor pollution, so one can only imagine the dangerous impact on the household members' health," Gopal Joshi, programme coordinator of Clean Energy Nepal (CEN), an NGO, told IRIN.

High dependence on biomass fuel

More than 80 percent of Nepalese live in rural areas, and fuel choice is dictated by socio-economic status, according to NGOs. Nearly 38 percent of the 27 million people live on less than US$1 per day.

Up to 85 percent of Nepal's total energy needs are met by traditional biomass fuels, according to Winrock International Nepal, an NGO working on developing clean energy, forestry and agriculture.

According to its report, Household Energy, Indoor Air Pollution and Health Impacts, combustion in most stoves is faulty and results in high emissions, which, combined with poor ventilation, means very high levels of pollution.

Specialists worry about the health of women and children who are at higher risk from indoor air pollutants. Women in rural areas spend more five hours within 2m of the cooking stove.

Studies have also indicated that exposure to firewood smoke in poorly ventilated conditions might increase by more than 100 percent the chances of young children suffering from ARI, low birth weight, pulmonary tuberculosis, laryngeal cancer and cataracts.

Chronic bronchitis and chronic obstructive lung disease are fairly prevalent among women in villages, according to Winrock.

The emission of damaging pollutants such as carbon monoxide, benzene, potassium and methyl chloride — which affect lungs, reducing resistance to infection and increasing the risk of cancer — are higher than national and international standards, said environmentalists.

Meanwhile, chronic fuel shortages and rising fuel prices are pushing more and more impoverished families into using biomass fuel and placing themselves and their children at greater risk, claim specialists.

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This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions

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