Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Talking Indoor Air Pollution

Text by Mary Gramiak and photo by Elise Lynch

One of the most exciting moments of the week before last was during a Nutrition Program meeting in Llanos del Pinal, where I was able to give a short presentation on the impacts indoor air pollution have on the lungs of women and children.

Here at Pop Wuj, we run a Safe Stove Project which upgrades cook stoves in the Llanos del Pinal region just outside of Xela. These stoves are constructed to reduce the probability of burns, reduce smoke in the kitchen, and reduce the amount of fuel needed by about half. With this presentation, we were able to continue to educate women on the impacts open fire cookstoves have on the health of themselves and their children.

Mary and Carmen talking about the impacts of indoor air pollution on health. 
Many people don't know, but indoor air pollution is one of the leading causes of premature death in the developing world, with World Health Organization estimates ranging around 4 million deaths every year. The indoor air pollution comes almost exclusively from stoves which use open fires, biomass fuels, or coal, and has profound impacts on the health of communities and individuals.

Indoor air pollution affects children the most, and can lead to low birthweight in infants, pneumonia, atypical lung development, asthma, and tuberculosis. In adults, it contributes to strokes, heart disease, respiratory illnesses, and cancer. For the community, these stoves can pollute the air and their energy inefficiency leads to rapid deforestation. On a day to day basis, the smoke from these stoves contributes to skin and eye irritation and headaches. Of the 3 billion people worldwide who cook over  these stoves, many are inhaling the equivalent of two packs of cigarettes a day. Of course, because women and children spend the most time in these environments, they are disproportionally impacted.

In the Thursday presentation I was able to talk with a group of women from Llanos del Pinal whose children participate in the malnutrition clinic about the different ways indoor air pollution effects women, children, and babies. In order to illustrate these points we filled three different size jars, small, medium, and large, with water in order to represent the different sized lungs. Then we dropped the same amount of ink into each and watched the ink spread throughout the jar. In the smallest jar, which represented the lungs of a baby, the water was pitch black while in the adult's jar the colour was significantly more diluted. This represented how the effects of indoor air pollution on babies are significantly more profound than the effects in adults. By using the visual demonstration of the jars and the ink we were able to turn a complex topic such as respiratory health into a user-friendly experience for the women involved.

A really rewarding moment from this presentation came the next day, Friday, when Carmen, Carmelina, and I went out to conduct interviews for the new group of safe stove participants. Before someone can receive a stove we conduct short interviews to identify their needs and overall profile, including number of dependents, level of education, and so on. What was special about these interviews was that we met with many women who had intended the presentation the day before. This was important because we were able to follow through with a lot of women by not only talking about the impacts of indoor air pollution, but actively offering them alternatives to their current cooking situation.

If you're interested in learning more about the impacts of indoor air pollution in the developing world there are many resources available including this fact sheet  from the United Nations.

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