indoor air pollition

Indoor Air Pollution: The Deadliest Global Problem No One Talks About

We like to think our homes are safe havens, but the truth is that, for many, some of the greatest dangers may come from behind their own doors.

Indoor air pollution, especially for developing nations, is by and far the most deadly environmental problem worldwide. The World Health Organization estimates that each year 4.3 million deaths occur that are related to compromised indoor air quality. A 2016 report from the American Association for the Advancement of Science claimed that 2.9 million died from the same cause in 2013. Whatever the number, indoor air pollution is a massive problem.

The issue this presents in developing nations is a frighteningly deadly one. Because billions of people still cook and heat by burning biomass (coal, charcoal, and plant residue, and dung) in their homes without proper ventilation, smoke can lead to various respiratory illnesses in both the young and old.

Even so, it gets less attention as a public health problem than others less spectacularly widespread.

Here’s what you should know about indoor air pollution, what can improve the issue, and how to tell if your own air is safe.

Where is it a problem?

[contextly_auto_sidebar id=”10EAWpDwBDk6h57dRlsv6JGd53F8fU2D”]People all over the world suffer due to indoor air pollution, but developed nations including the United States, most of Europe, Canada, and Australia are those with the least indoor air pollution related deaths.

Why? Households in countries like the U.S. run off of electrical grids for energy, minimizing if not completely eliminating the need to burn fuel indoors. This doesn’t mean other problems like mold and second-hand smoke don’t cause issues — just that the level isn’t as bad.

According to the World Health Organization’s data, mapped below, Africa and India suffer greatest from indoor air pollution in terms of deaths per million.

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Improving air quality

For those in the developing world, especially those 1.2 billion with no electricity, solutions to indoor air pollution are few and far between. In one study that granted random households cleaner-burning stoves with chimneys, smoke inhalation dropped after one year, but saw no meaningful improvement after four because the maintenance was taxing.

But there have been other, more helpful interventions. For example:

  • In Kenya, the installation of large windows and stove hoods improved employment, health, interpersonal relations
  • In Guatemala, improved stove installations reduced cases of childhood pneumonia and asthma, and lower blood pressure and reduce pain in adults
  • China has installed hundreds of thousands of improved stoves in rural households, a large-scale intervention that succeeded in improving the air quality

In addition, projects exist, such as the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, that aim to get solar stoves into the homes of the world’s poorest and most vulnerable to IAP. Unfortunately, solar may not be the best option, considering night and cloudy-day usage would be difficult.

Education and government interventions, as well as cost-efficient cooking alternatives, will be necessarily to make significant strides.

Is my home okay?

If you’re not in a poorly ventilated hut burning dung, your life is likely not in danger from indoor air pollution. But that doesn’t mean that your air is perfectly clean, or that you shouldn’t take measures to test to make sure its quality is safe.

The pollutants most threatening to developing countries are:

  • Second hand smoke: can result in up to 15,000 hospitalizations yearly, and over 300,000 respiratory infections in infants
  • Carbon Monoxide: 430 people die a year in America from unintentional carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Radon: exposure to radon in the home is responsible for 200,000 lung cancer deaths per year
  • VOCs: Volatile organic compounds can lead to cancer, liver damage, kidney damage, and central nervous system damage in the long term
  • Mold: Indoor mold is very common, but can typically be seen and smelled if dangerous. Mold can produce toxins, and in rare cases may cause pulmonary hemorrhage or memory loss, but more commonly cause hay fever-like allergic symptoms

To make sure your home’s air is safe, keep your space well ventilated, purchase detectors for carbon monoxide and radon, and be extremely wary with chemical products like cleaning supplies, pesticides, and paint. Keep smokers outside, make sure your house is clean and free of dust and pet dander, and make sure humidity levels are low to prevent mold.

Having a nice house plant, which remove CO2 and release oxygen and water, can improve air quality ever so slightly. Plus, they’re good for feng shui.

The takeaway

Considering the problem indoor air pollution poses globally, it’s a blessing those of us in the developing world have the control we need to ensure our homes are safe and pollutant-free.

To do more for those that aren’t as lucky, you can consider donating to Practical Action the the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves.

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Jennifer Markert