Monday, 21 June 2010

Dangers of cooking with firewood

Joachim Ezeji

In the traditional African society there is struggle for almost everything. There is struggle for basic things such as water, food and even clean air. These things are simply a luxury in most homes. I therefore wonder when our people will be supported to overcome these difficulties and live in harmony with their environment and nature.

Accounts of deforestation in Nigeria by scientists show that about 92 percent of the land surface of Nigeria is considered prone to land degradation from moderate to severe stages. Over 350 million tons of topsoil is estimated to be lost each year due to soil erosion. Natural forests, believed to have covered about 40 percent of the country’s land surface some 50 years ago have dwindled to mere 9 percent currently. The estimated 26 million herds of cattle and goats which are mostly grazing beyond carrying capacity have not helped the land reclamation strategies.

More than 37 percent of the country’s forest reserve were lost between 1990 and 2005 as a result of illegal and uncontrolled logging, incessant bush burning, fuel wood gathering and clearing of forests for other land uses hence making the country vulnerable to declining soil productivity, desertification, loss of aquatic life, coastal/soil erosion, biodiversity lose, water and air pollution, drying up of water bodies, erratic flooding causing loss of life and property and diseases.

But those are just a single side of the story. Cooking indoors, on an open fire has been used since the beginning of human civilization. In Nigeria, just as in many other parts of Africa, this simple technology is still the prevailing method for cooking and heating and consists of the use of biomass fuel –including firewood, agricultural residue and animal dung – in traditional open-fire stoves.

In Nigeria, children miss up to 3 days of school per week to gather firewood with 76% of the population depending on firewood for fuel and cooking. The use of wood as fuel for everything from cooking to heating is one of the biggest problems in Nigeria. When wood is burnt it becomes hot and releases gases which account for a large amount of the energy and heat produced. As cooking takes place every day of the year, most people using solid fuels are exposed to levels of small particles many times higher than accepted annual limits for outdoor air pollution.

Combustion of solid fuels in open fires or traditional stoves results in very high levels of indoor air pollutants (IAP), principally particulate matter (PM) and carbon monoxide (CO). It also releases a number of other dangerous chemicals including nitrogen oxides, benzene, butadiene, formaldehyde, poly-aromatic hydrocarbons. These gases and particles lead to respiratory diseases such as lung cancer, asthma, pneumonia and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease affecting primarily the women and children. The smoke and indoor pollution arising from these cooking processes were held responsible for over 1.6 million deaths and 2.7% of the global burden of disease. In 2002 across Sub Saharan Africa the death toll due to indoor pollution had risen to 396 000 and with a prediction of over 200 million more people using solid fuel combustion in the developing world by 2030 to provide their energy needs this figure will inevitably rise.
In India alone, about 500,000 premature deaths of women and children are encountered each year due to indoor air pollution. Millions more suffer every day with difficulty in breathing, stinging eyes, and chronic respiratory disease. The WHO estimates that inhaling indoor smoke doubles the risk of pneumonia and other acute infections of the lower respiratory tract among children under five years of age. It has also concluded that women exposed to indoor smoke are three times more likely to suffer from COPD, such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema, than women who cook with electricity, gas or other cleaner fuels.
The World Bank also estimates that about 400 million children and 700 million women are at risk because of exposure to contamination arising from the use of biomass for cooking and heating (GTZ-PAHO/WHO, 2006). Indoor Air Pollution and inefficient household energy practices are additionally posing significant obstacles to the achievement of the Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) since the use of solid fuels has many other negative household impacts.
In Nigeria, despite the enormous number of firewood burning for cooking, there are not many studies conducted related to its impact as a driver of Indoor Air Pollution -- particularly emphasizing health impacts. The dissemination of information or environmental education of vulnerable groups is not yet adequately undertaken. It is yet to be understood whether this is due to the lack of trained human resources or as a lack of state of the art equipment needed to carry and conduct research.
Furthermore, smoke alleviating technologies or alternate solar powered stoves and ovens are not yet accorded priority in development in any part or region of Nigeria. These interventions need to consider the geographical, climatic, and socio-economic conditions of local populations as well as micro-credit finance to aid their adoption.
Nigerian NGOs have a role to play in this regard. There is an urgent need to conduct actual field studies and research to identify which interventions work best in specific local contexts. As such, there is a huge need for environmental health education in this critical area in this era of climatic revulsion.
I therefore challenge government departments especially the environment and public health departments in government, universities and the private sector to rise up to the occasion and save Nigeria’s poor whose health and well being are being shrunk and ruined by excessive exposure to pollution from firewood smokes.

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