Recently the World Health Organization updated its estimates of fatalities from household and ambient air pollution for the first time in nearly a decade.
The organization’s report is a sobering reminder of the universal human need for energy and modern energy infrastructure. While energy has helped lift billions out of poverty, the WHO report reinforces that there is so much more that can be done to improve living standards – and thereby save lives – around the world.
In 2012, the WHO says, around 7 million people died as a result of exposure to air pollution, leading the organization to call it “the world’s largest single environmental health risk.”
Perhaps most disturbing about the WHO’s report are the statistics for air pollution in the home, caused mostly by cooking, heating, and lighting practices in non-OECD regions.
In 2012, it estimates, 4.3 million people around the world died from household air pollution, largely in nations in the Southeast Asia and the western Pacific regions.
Like burning 400 cigarettes per hour
The health hazards are obvious.
“Having an open fire in your kitchen is like burning 400 cigarettes an hour,” the WHO quotes Dr. Kirk Smith of the University of California at Berkeley as saying.
The result is a spike in non-communicable diseases such as heart disease, stroke, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, and lung cancer.
Open fires for cooking and heating also account for a significant number of acute respiratory illnesses in children. In fact, the WHO estimates more than half a million of those who perish from indoor air pollution are children under the age of five.
Losing one Barcelona every year
The 4.3 million premature deaths indoor cooking and heating cause each year are equivalent to a plague eradicating the entire population of Barcelona, Spain.
Of course this epidemic doesn’t affect places like Barcelona, or anywhere in advanced economies with homes and businesses powered by electricity and clean natural gas.
But dealing with these effects is the daily lot of close to 3 billion people living in energy poverty, which the International Energy Agency describes as a lack of modern energy services, notably electricity and clean cooking facilities.
What has become clearer over the last few decades is that among the biggest keys to ending poverty is ending energy poverty.
As policymakers and leaders assess global priorities, at or near the top of their list should be making strides toward a day when deaths from indoor air pollution are nothing but reminders of the past.