A health hazard hiding in plain sight

The COVID-19 pandemic has forced many of us to stay at home for long. There are many side effects of staying at home for long on our mental, physical, and emotional well being. Indoor air pollution could be an additional health hazard which has not been extensively researched as ambient air quality. Citizens need to be extra careful to keep air quality at their homes clean and their health fine

The deteriorating air quality in our cities has forced governments to deploy technological tools to monitor air quality in different parts of the cities round the clock but there are still only few research studies on quality of air inside our homes. The pandemic and following lockdowns have forced many of us to remain indoors.
Air quality dips in many cities of the country with coming of the winter season and that is because of several reasons combined. Stubble burning, bursting of crackers during the festival season and low ambient temperature increased the pollutants in the ambience.

Government’s initiative

India has taken long strides in the use of clean fuel in poor rural and urban homes with the introduction of Ujjwala Yojana. The free LPG connection scheme has seen a huge increase in the number of poor households with gas stove thus reducing dependency on the use of solid fuels such as coal, dung cakes, and firewood for cooking. Many studies suggest that sustained exposure to indoor air pollution increases the risk of stroke, heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and acute respiratory infections in women and children.
Government of India, in 2016, launched the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY)—the largest clean cooking energy programme of its kind—to protect the health of women and children. By subsidising connections and providing a loan for the cost of LPG adoption, the scheme has been pivotal in transforming access to LPG with over 80 million connections provided to poor households in 715 districts. There is no doubt that the scheme has helped in reducing pollution in millions of Indian homes but affordability to refill the gas cylinders remain a concern for many poor families, especially in the times of the pandemic in which many livelihoods have been affected. It is a major challenge to stop people from switching back to biomass fuel. It is expected that the successful implementation of the PMUY (to provide LPG to poor households) and the Deen Dayal Upadhyay Grameen Jyoti Yojana (to provide electricity to all rural households) would help India meet the annual national pollution safe standard for PM 2.5 concentrations.
According to a study published in Environment Health Journal, the average daily concentration of PM 2.5 inside a home using solid cooking fuel can be anywhere in the range of
163-600 micrograms per cubic metre (µg/m3). This is between six and 23 times the safe level of daily air pollution exposure of 25 µg/m3 recommended by the World Health Organisation (WHO). Exposure to indoor emission increased during the lockdown period. Kerala, with an increase of 20 tons a day in PM 2.5 emissions, Maharashtra (15 tons/day), West Bengal (14 tons/day) and Jharkhand (12 tons/day) are emerging as the biggest indoor emitters among states. A study suggests that the national daily average household emission for PM 2.5 increased from nearly 8,600 tons to about 8,750 tons per day during the lockdown, according to the World Resource Institute (WRI) India analysis. The lockdown situation adversely affected the health of children and elderly who used to spend their time outside in schools or at the workplace or anywhere outside during cooking hours.

There is no doubt that the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana has helped in reducing pollution in millions of Indian homes but affordability to refill gas cylinders remain a concern for many poor families, especially in the times of the pandemic when many livelihoods have been affected. It is a major challenge to stop people from switching back to biomass fuel

Worst affected

As per the data published in the recently released report State of Global Air 2020, the vast majority of deaths attributed to household air pollution occur in Africa and Asia. Long-term exposure to household air pollution from the burning of solid fuels for cooking contributed to 2.31 million deaths in 2019, about 4 per cent of all global deaths. Most of the 2.31 million deaths are accounted for by just three Regions: South Asia
(36 per cent), sub-Saharan Africa
(30 per cent), and Southeast Asia, East Asia, and Oceania (28 per cent). China and India, despite declining exposure and death rates attributable to household air pollution, together account for about 42 per cent of global household air pollution deaths owing to their large exposed populations.
There is a silver lining in this report for India. India and China have registered a reduction of over 440,000 deaths attributable to household air pollution. This could become possible because of sustained efforts by these countries to move towards cleaner fuel options for cooking and stringent anti-pollution norms. The report says that in China, large-scale efforts have focused on replacing coal-burning cookstoves with cleaner devices. In India, access to clean fuels (i.e., liquefied petroleum gas, or LPG) has been expanded across the country. India is also fast urbanizing and it is believed that more people would be living in cities in the coming years. It becomes more important to address the issue of ambient air quality and indoor air quality because increasing pollution would probably lead to more consumption of energy in cities. And, if not controlled strategically, it could lead to worse air quality inside our homes and on the streets. The issue of ambient and indoor air quality needs to be addressed holistically because both the issues are closely linked. The governments all across are working to reduce ambient air pollution but the individuals also have a role to play. Experts suggest some practical solutions for households such as having proper ventilation at home, cleaning of floor to avoid the collection of dust and no-smoking rule inside the home. It is also suggested that bad odour shouldn’t be covered using air freshener instead one should find the source of it and get rid of it. Use of natural cleaners instead of chemicals is also suggested. This is not an exhaustive to-do list for keeping the air clean at home but these basic
rules can make the air inside our
homes healthier.

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