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Poverty Times #1

The real cost of fuel

The burning of biomass causes respiratory diseases and problems related to pregnancy, and results in illness and premature death among poor women and children. By An. Ba.

In rural areas the lack of access to electricity and its high cost (as well as that of electrical appliances) force many poor communities to use traditional biomass fuels such as wood, crop residues and dung for cooking and heating. Burning this biomass releases harmful air pollutants (SO2, CO2, NOX, hydrocarbons, soot particles) that are associated with acute respiratory infections, chronic lung diseases, cancer and pregnancy-related problems (1).

Women are particularly susceptible to the health consequences of indoor air

pollution since traditionally they do the cooking – often in poorly ventilated spaces. Babies and children, who spend much of their time at home, are also vulnerable to indoor smoke. In India, three-quarters of all households use traditional fuels and half a million women and children die each year from related health problems (2). And in the Gambia, children strapped to their mother’s backs during cooking are six times more likely to develop respiratory infections (2).

In addition to the severe health consequences of indoor pollution, the gathering of traditional biomass (fuel, firewood) has resulted in the degradation of forests and woodlands, in turn causing soil erosion and watershed protection loss. The use of more efficient stoves and alternative energy sources (hydroelectric, solar, wind) are ways to minimize the health impact – and the ecological consequences – of the gathering, use and burning of biomass.

An. Ba.
ballance@grida.no

1. World Resources 1998-99: Environmental Change and Human Health, WRI, UNDP, UNEP & World Bank, Washington DC, 1998.

2. Indoor Air Pollution: Fighting a Massive Health Threat in India, World Bank, Washington DC, 2000.