Domestic air pollution turning homes into deathtraps

900 thousand people die from indoor air pollution in India alone. The government is trying hard to introduce clean fuel. But, in rural India people are still reluctant to use clean fuel. WION's Madhumita Saha brings you this startling report Photograph:( WION )

WION Noida, Uttar Pradesh, India Mar 24, 2017, 12.05 PM (IST) Madhumita Saha

 

Last November, as dense smog hung over India’s National Capital Region for over a week or so, commuters would hurry back to the safe, clean sanctuary of their home. Understandably, the assumption was that the four-walled enclosed space of our private life is suitably distanced from the suffocatingly unhealthy environment of the public sphere.

But just like any rigid disjuncture between private-public spheres is untenable,research reveals that that India’s homes are in a state of fluid continuum with the cities. And, dangerously so. 

Pollution, particularly, air pollution respects know no geographical boundary. It does not distinguish between cities and villages, homes and the outdoors. 

Thus, our discussion over the pollution menace and how to combat it should not be exclusively focussed on cities, industries and car. While these do contribute significantly to air pollution, killing millions globally, surveys done by the WHO and host of epidemiological agencies have revealed domestic air pollution to be a potent killer, impacting 4.3 million people worldwide.

India is the single largest repository of people suffering from air pollution-borne maladies. 900 thousand Indians die from the fall outs of indoor air pollution each year. Women and children are its worst victims. 

 

With 70 millions Indians still using chullahs to cook food, homes in India are increasingly resembling gas chambers (Others)

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Not so pure

With 70 millions Indians still using chullahs to cook food, homes in India are increasingly resembling gas chambers. But this is no one way street. The bad air created within Indian homes is escalating the already grave outdoor air pollution scenario.

Scientists are unanimous that the major culprit causing air pollution is cowdung. 

There is certain amount of irony in the discovery that cowdung is the polluting agent. 

Traditionally, cowdung has been considered pure; Hindus have been using it in religious rituals for time immemorial. Beyond the domain of the sacred,dry cowdung cake has been the most ubiquitous source of fuel for communities across the subcontinent. 

It is free, locally-available, tradition-sanctioned. Also, using cowdung as fuel is the easiest way to dispose it off. 

But all the practical advantages of cowdung has been checkmated by the amount of tiny particles (PM2.5) it releases in the environment. Such particles are notorious for reducing visibility, and owing to their very small size, it can travel deeply into the respiratory tract, reaching the lungs. Every time a woman cooks, using biomass as fuel, that is cowdung, dry leaves, and wood combined, she exposes, primarily, herself as well as all her family members to these deadly particulate matter. 

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Scientists are unanimous that the major culprit causing air pollution is cowdung. 
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In Palwal, 80 km south of Delhi, the village of Bajda Pahari is the center of INCLEN’s research on intensity of domestic pollution in rural India. There are very few cars plying the village roads here and no industries in sight, even the otherwise ubiquitous smoking chimneys of brick kilns are not readily spotted. Yet, the pollution meter that the scientists have installed at the roof of the tallest house in the village comes up with a reading of 200 PM2.5

To put context to the number, the executive director of the project, Narendra Arora, points out that that recommended average of PM2.5 is 60. So, it is more than 3 times the recommended amount. Researchers consider this to be a “very dangerous” level. Dr Arora, a pediatrician by profession, pointed out the health hazards it might cause if one is continuously exposed to these levels of pollution for long. Speaking to WION, Dr Arora said, “primarily children and women are biggest sufferer of this. Children suffer repeated respiratory infection. The expecting mother if exposed to higher levels of PM2.5, children are expected to be lower in weight. In India almost one-third of our children are lower birth rate. Similarly, it has been seen that issues like asthma, chronic obstructive lung disease and other such diseases increases. Recently, even cancer may increase when people are exposed to unclean air.”

 

Women and children are the worst victims of indoor air pollution (Others)

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Prof Kirk Smith of University of California, Berkeley who is an expert associated with the project had something more terrifying to add. It is that time of the day (around 3pm) when no one is cooking at home as lunch is over and cooking for dinner is yet to start. In the morning and the evening when cooking starts, however, the PM2.5 level spikes up close to 450. 

 

Embracing the gas chamber 

This reading is taken at the outdoor. Inside the home, Komal is sitting in front of the chullah, the pollution meter installed on her chest shows reading as high 600. Her eyes burns, she is coughing and often suffers from severe headache. 

These maladies are all sure signs of being exposed to smoke for so long everyday. 

If she suffers so much, why is she not transitioning to gas cylinders? That way there would be no smoke, no soot, no time spend in collecting the biomass necessary to provide fuel to the chullah. 

To my query she comes up with an answer, which because of my privileged position, I was least expecting.

Kamal - shy, smiling and sweet- very quietly says, “adaat par gayi” (I have become used to it) 

The habit of adjusting to discomfort without complaining has made these women nonchalant about the need to make the necessary shift to cleaner fuels. 

 

The habit of adjusting to discomfort without complaining has made these women nonchalant about the need to make the necessary shift to cleaner fuels. 
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As Bina and Moni come forward to explain why they continue to cook in chullah, it became clear that there is a collective refusal to consume rotis made in gas ovens. People will make tea, warm up milk, and even occasionally make sabji in the gas oven, but not chappatis -  a staple diet of the region. 

Evidently, villagers experience stomach ache from consuming rotis cooked in gas oven.  “Pet me dard hota hai”, is what each and every person unequivocally said about oven-made rotis. 

It is very difficult to find a medical explanation for this pain. Firstly, none of them visited a doctor when in pain. More importantly, there is no doctor in the village to diagnose the symptom. 

LPG cylinders, the most convenient form of clean fuel available, are meant to be introduced to ---households over the next three years. What is seen largely as an unprecedented step, the Indian government will give a subsidy of INR 25, 000 crore to encourage women from lower income family to use gas cylinders for cooking. 

 But the reluctance, I witnessed, in using gas to cook in Bajda Pahari, if at all indicative of a larger picture, makes me wonder if economic incentive will facilitate the shift to cleaner fuels.

Eating is a very personal/intimate experience, people don’t easily change the ways, means and components of food consumption. 

Incidentally, all new technological products - from electricity to vaccines - have faced this cultural challenge. People resisted it for long before accepting it, and their resistance came often from fear of bodily harm. 

 

INCLEN scientists send drone with a pollution monitor up 150 feet from the ground to measure the vertical stretch of the pollution in the region (Others)

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The drone

As dusk descends over the village, the scientists send the drone with a pollution monitor up 150 feet from the ground to measure the vertical stretch of the pollution in the region. 

As the women lits up the chullahs, men returns home smoking hukkah, and heaps of leaves are lit up to keep children warm, smoke wafts through the air.

We return to the city wondering, will the smoke disappear in the blue hole above us or will it remain trapped to the ground, as the scientists feared often is the case in landlocked continental India during the winter.

Thus, as the vicious cycle of pollution continues, enforced by cultural attitude, the chances are very high that we will wake up again to a terribly smoggy and suffocating morning.