Eliminating Household Fuels Could Dramatically Lower Air Pollution In India

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People have very simple needs. They like to be warm and they like to cook the food they eat. But in many cases, doing so leads to serious health issues. Take India, for example, where wood, cow dung, coal, and kerosene are the primary sources of heat and cooking for about half the population of the country’s 1.4 billion people.

wood cooking fire
Credit: Pixabay

Researchers at the University of California Berkeley and the India Institute of Technology have found that eliminating emissions from these household fuels would be enough to make India’s outside air quality meet its air quality standard even without any changes to industrial or vehicle emissions, according to a report by Science Daily.

The study shows that mitigating the use of household fuels could reduce air pollution related deaths in the country by about 13% — equivalent to saving 270,000 lives a year. The research is published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

“Household fuels are the single biggest source of outdoor air pollution in India,” says Kirk Smith, professor of global environmental health at UC Berkeley and director of the Collaborative Clean Air Policy Center. “We looked at what would happen if they only cleaned up households, and we came to this counterintuitive result that the whole country would reach national air pollution standards if they did that.”

Putting aside the obvious fact that these common household fuels are a significant source of carbon dioxide emissions, they are also responsible for large amounts of fine particulate matter, which can trigger a host of diseases, including pneumonia, heart disease, stroke, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

“There are 3,000 chemicals that have been identified in wood smoke, and taken at a macro level, it is very similar to tobacco smoke,” Smith said. “You can’t have a clean environment when about half the houses in India are burning dirty fuels every day. India has got to do other things to fix air pollution — they’ve got to stop garbage burning, they’ve got to control the power plants, they’ve got to control vehicles and so forth.

“But they need to recognize the fact that households are very important contributors to outdoor air pollution, too,” Smith says. “We’ve realized that pollution may start in the kitchen, but it doesn’t stay there — it goes outside, it goes next door, it goes down the street and it becomes part of the general outdoor air pollution,” Smith says.

What’s the solution? Two things would help — electrification for heat and and clean burning propane for cooking. India has already distributed propane stoves to about 80,000,000 households. While they create carbon dioxide emissions when used, at least they don’t inflict damage to the lungs of people nearby.

One would think the exhaust from hundreds of millions of motorbikes and hundreds of coal-fired generating stations would be the largest contributors to India’s poor air quality. The researchers were surprised to discover cooking and heating fuels  had such a significant impact on air quality. The solution, as suggested by the Energy Watch Group last month is clear — electrify everything. Assuming the electricity comes from carbon free sources, that is.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new."

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