Air Pollution and Rights to Clean Air: Disproportionate Rates of Premature Mortality in Women

Photo by Quinn Buffing on Unsplash

Written by Jessica Harris

During the first few months of spring this year, banana bread and elaborate recipes flooded social media platforms as homebound citizens were combatting boredom under national lockdowns. Since the outbreak of the coronavirus, much of the developed world has spent more time in the kitchen, claiming the space as a safe respite from contracting the disease. Following government mandates and medical advice, the home has become the safest place to be to protect our respiratory health.

Yet for rural women in developing countries, their homes are killing them.

Approximately half of the world’s population relies on biomass (coal, wood, dung) to fuel cooking fires and provide warmth for their homes, including nearly 700 million people in sub-Saharan Africa. Yet these traditional cooking stoves emit particulate matter (PM), methane, carbon monoxide, polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH) and volatile organic compounds (VOC). As a result, sustained inhalation of these pollutants is known to cause pneumonia, lifelong respiratory diseases, cognitive impairments, and an increased risk of cancer, accounting for 3.8 million premature deaths a year.

Tasked with social expectations to fulfil domestic duties, many women and children spend more time in the home, cooking meals, resulting in exposure to higher levels of toxins than their male counterparts. Essentially, in many rural parts of the world the quality of air one breathes, and the resulting health outcomes are determined by gender.

This disproportional impact can be seen quite clearly in data from 2012, where 60% of all premature deaths attributed to indoor air pollution were women and children. And even among children, young girls have a strikingly higher exposure to PM than young boys, as concluded by Okello et al., in their 2018 study quantifying exposure rates in rural Ugandan and Ethiopian homes. The same study also captured the magnitude of difference in exposure between adult men and women, finding women are exposed up to five times more PM than their male counterparts.

Not only do these cooking methods contribute to adverse health, but also to the emissions which drive our changing climate. CO2 and volatile compounds, once they escape the home, react in the atmosphere to produce ozone (volatile compounds) or trap heat as a greenhouse gas (CO2). Furthermore, these environmental and health dangers are exacerbated by the financial inaccessibility of safe cooking replacements and renewable fuels.

The kitchen in developing nations represents the staggering gender and economic inequalities which impede sustainable development.

Encapsulated in a single cookstove is an immediate concern to address three of the seventeen United Nations Sustainable Development Goals: Good Health and Well-Being (SDG 3), Gender Equality (SDG 5), and Reduced Inequalities (SDG 10). While a cleaner replacement appears to be an obvious and easy choice, they are not always economically viable since many families require loans to purchase them. As a result, government and small organizational initiatives are working in rural areas across the globe to bring safe and reliable cookstoves to the homes of millions, either through supportive financing or funded initiatives.

Bangladesh seeks to improve the cookstoves of 30 million houses by 2030. On top of the financial difficulty in acquiring a safe cookstove, there exists the practical challenge of maintaining and repairing the appliance, as well as educating women about proper ventilation and the dangers traditional cooking methods pose in the first place.

Clean fuel and improved cookstoves (worth roughly $4.75-$6) can improve women’s and girl’s quality of life and empower them with good health. Women’s rights, their well-being, and the environment are not mutually exclusive. How can young girls and women have access to education and social opportunity when they are struggling with chronic asthma, cognitive impairments, and a myriad of other pollutant caused morbidities?

Clean indoor air provides for a cleaner environment and improved health, and ought to be accessible to all people, regardless of gender or socioeconomic status.  

Half of the globe’s population are inhaling deadly yet avoidable toxins which impact women disproportionately. In many developing places the fight for women’s rights to equality, education, and good health starts in the kitchen.

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