People are unaware of the health effects of indoor air pollution

Tuesday 29 February 2000

Angela Mathee , an environmental scientist at the South African Medical Research Council, Cape Town,spoke to Nidhi Jamwal on the dangers of indoor air pollution

What is indoor air pollution?
It is the presence of a number of pollutants in the indoor environment, like suspended particulate matter ( spm ), which are hazardous to human health. Those of most concern are very tiny -- particles less than 10 microns in size ( pm 10). One micron is one-millionth of a metre or one-fiftieth the diameter of human hair. These particles are very dangerous because they can easily penetrate into the human respiratory tract.

How widespread is this problem as compared to outdoor air pollution?
Although there is very little information, whatever is available tells us that the problem is very serious in many countries, particularly in developing nations where a large number of people use biomass fuel for cooking. If we measure spm in houses that use biomass, wood or coal, the levels could be very high. Surprisingly, most people are unaware of the danger.

Is this more prevalent in rural areas, where people use biomass fuels?
From my experience in South Africa, I found that it is a problem in urban areas also. In squatter settlements on the outskirts of a city, indoor air pollution is high as people use biomass fuel for cooking. Even within the city, where there is little access to electricity, people are using wood and coal for cooking.

What are its health effects?
The worst health effect of indoor air pollution is acute respiratory infection. Women and young children are highly susceptible to diseases such as pneumonia and eye infections. Some studies have indicated that lung cancer and tuberculosis ( tb ) may be associated with indoor air pollution, but further research is needed to establish this link.

The indirect effects of indoor air pollution are also a cause for concern. In communities that use wood, coal or kerosene, there is the possibility that children may drink kerosene confusing it with water. Fires are also common in settlements in urban areas where houses are situated close to one another.

What is the sick building syndrome?
A variety of organic molecules known as volatile organic compounds ( voc s) have been found in office air and linked to the sick building syndrome. These are a range of symptoms that leave people feeling tired, irritable and unwell but with no specific illness. This could be due to the chemicals present in the air such as those from cigarette smoke. However, it is difficult to establish a single reason for this syndrome.

Is there a relation between indoor air pollution and poverty?
The poorest sections of the rural population suffer the most. But this does not mean that alleviating poverty will solve the problem of indoor air pollution. Even the urban population suffers from severe problems due to indoor air pollution. One way to deal with the problem is to educate people, especially women, about alternative fuels.

What is needed to tackle the problem?
We need more information on the extent of this problem and its health impacts. We also have to evaluate the various alternatives to biomass fuels such as cooking gas and then decide on the most cost-effective alternative. We need to use the information from research to raise awareness among politicians and the community at large. We also need more funds, expertise and technology to monitor indoor air quality. At the moment, the methodology is expensive, which many developing nations cannot afford.

What are the alternatives to the use of biomass fuels?
The short-term alternatives would be to construct chimneys, which disperse the emissions outside, and the introduction of better-designed stoves. Also, the design of the house could be changed to ensure that air does not get trapped inside. A long-term solution could be investing in solar energy projects.

What has the South African government done to curb indoor air pollution?
As in many developing countries, there is not much attention being paid to this issue in South Africa, despite clear indications about its health effects. The government has launched a massive electrification programme in the country. However, since the electricity is generated by coal-fired power plants, there are concerns about ambient air pollution getting worse. About half of the houses in South Africa do not have access to electricity. Therefore, they are using wood and coal for cooking.

What is your organisation doing in the field of indoor air pollution?
The Medical Research Council has started a research programme on environmental health and indoor air pollution is one of our priorities. We are now trying to use the existing information to spread awareness about the extent of respiratory problems in South Africa. We have also started another project where we are monitoring the respiratory health status of children. We should have started work on tackling indoor air pollution a long time ago. However, it is still not too late. The sooner we start working on it, the better it is for us.

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Angela Mathee

Angela Mathee

Environmental scientist at the South African Medical Research Council, Cape Town

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