DRC kids cooking (c) UNHCR M. Sibiloni DRC 2012


Household air pollution, primarily from traditional cooking and heating methods, is a major problem worldwide. The World Health Organization (WHO) has recently determined air pollution to be the world’s largest single environmental health risk. The findings estimate that the joint effects of household air pollution and ambient air pollution were attributable to over 7 million deaths in 2012, representing one in eight annual global deaths.

More specifically, WHO estimates that:

  • 4.3 million deaths were attributable to household air pollution in 2012;
  • More than 50% of premature deaths among children under five are due to pneumonia caused by particulate matter inhaled from household air pollution;
  • 3.8 million premature deaths annually from noncommunicable diseases including stroke, ischaemic heart disease, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and lung cancer are attributed to exposure to household air pollution.

Rudimentary wood-fired cookstoves and open fires emit fine particles, carbon monoxide, and other pollutants at levels up to 100 times higher than the recommended limits set by WHO. Exposure to smoke is greatest among women and young children, who spend the most time near open fires or traditional cookstoves tending to the family meal and inhale unhealthy levels of emissions.

Health effects are especially deadly for children under the age of five. A randomized-control study led by the School of Public Health at University of California, Berkeley, found that halving exposure to indoor air pollution with a chimney stove brought about a reduction in severe pneumonia. A systematic review of all available studies on the link between solid fuel use and child pneumonia has found an almost doubling of risk for those exposed.

Among displaced populations, the frequent lack of fuel can also lead to other negative health outcomes. When fuel is not available to cook food or boil water, families must skip meals, undercook food, and even consume contaminated water. Consequently, they become susceptible to illnesses such as malnutrition, cholera, foodborne diseases, and malnutrition. In North Darfur, for example, a University of California at Berkeley study found that 80% of IDPs interviewed in three camps reported selling food from their WFP ration to buy firewood. On average they missed 3 meals a week when they had food but lacked cooking fuel.

Gender based violence and physical assault during firewood collection can cause lasting physical and psycho-social damage, and as fuel-gatherers walk many miles and carry several kilos of wood on their head, they may be vulnerable to head and spinal injury. Furthermore, the use of rudimentary cookstoves and fuels like kerosene increases the risk of severe burns especially in the crowded conditions found in refugee camps.

Access to clean, safe, and efficient household energy is essential for the health, safety, and well-being of millions of displaced people worldwide. The combination of cleaner and more efficient stoves, cleaner fuels, and better ventilated cooking areas, coupled with the reduced need for firewood collection can have enormous positive health and safety benefits.