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Energy Poverty & Health (WHO collaboration)

The adverse consequences of the use of traditional forms of energy for health, economic development and the environment are well illustrated by the example of the use of traditional biomass for cooking. Currently, devices for cooking with biomass are mostly three-stone fires, traditional mud stoves or metal, cement and pottery or brick stoves, with no operating chimneys or hoods. As a consequence of the pollutants emitted by these devices, pollution levels inside households cooking with biomass are often many times higher than typical outdoor levels, even those in highly polluted cities. The World Health Organization estimates that more than 1.45 million people die prematurely each year from household air pollution due to inefficient biomass combustion. A significant proportion of these are young children, who spend many hours each day breathing smoke pollution from the cookstove. Today, the number of premature deaths from household air pollution is greater than the number of premature deaths from malaria or tuberculosis (Figure 1).  

Using World Health Organization projections for premature deaths to 2030, the annual number of premature deaths over the projection period from the indoor use of biomass is expected to increase in the New Policies Scenario, unless there is targeted action to deal with the problem. By 2030 over 1.5 million people would die every year due to the effects of breathing smoke from poorly-combusted biomass fuels. This is more than 4 000 people per day. By contrast, the World Health Organization expects the number of premature deaths from malaria, tuberculosis or HIV/AIDS to decline over the same period.

Figure 1
Premature annual deaths from household air pollution and other diseases

Premature annual deaths from household air pollution and other diseases

Source: WEO-2010

In developing regions in which households are heavily reliant on biomass, women and children are generally responsible for fuel collection, a time-consuming and exhausting task. Women can suffer serious long-term physical damage from strenuous work without sufficient recuperation. This risk, as well as the hazards of falls, snake bites or human assault, rises steeply the further from home women have to walk. Inefficient and unsustainable cooking practices also have serious implications for the environment, such as land degradation and local and regional air pollution. In cities where households are primarily reliant on wood or wood-based charcoal for cooking, there is local deforestation in the surrounding areas.   

Download document on the World Health Organization projections for premature deaths from household air pollution (methodology and interpretation of results).

Download WHO estimates for premature deaths by region.  (HTM LINK)