Because of the freely flowing nature of the atmosphere, we do not usually think of air pollution as an indoor problem. Yet it is present in both developed and developing nations, though in different ways. Smoke poses a hazard to many in developing countries - the smoke from indoor cooking stoves and from indoor lighting. Because reliable access to electricity in many countries remains a problem (the International Energy Agency estimates 1.3 billion people have no access), lighting is often via kerosene lamps, and cooking is done on stoves which use a variety of fuels, including coal, kerosene, wood and charcoal. As well as a significant health issue, these methods of heating and lighting place a major economic strain on families - one estimate suggests rural families spend at least 20% of their income on cooking fuels.
The good news is that human ingenuity and community spirit are focused on resolving these problems. In the field of lighting, many will have already heard of the simple inspiration that led the Brazilian mechanic Alfredo Moser to drill holes in his roof, and fix plastic bottles containing nothing more than water and a little bleach in place with a little polyester resin. The result? Free solar lighting during daylight. The idea has since been adopted in over a dozen other countries, and estimates suggest it will light one million homes this year. And to tackle the issue of lighting at night, a number of groups and individuals are finding innovative ways to share the budding technology of solar lamps. In Kenya, SunnyMoney, a subsidiary of the UK charity SolarAid, is making good progress. The lamps were initially distributed through the area’s schools, where head-teachers were persuaded to present them as a way of helping pupils with homework. Now the lamps are sold commercially. Because SunnyMoney is backed by a charity, it can afford to make a small loss on each sale, with the aim instead being to broaden access by opening up new markets. Across sub-Saharan Africa, the result is almost one million lamps sold. And in Kenya, shopkeeper Sally Kayoni notes that since she has started stocking them, people no longer ask for kerosene. In Uganda, Simon Lule was also looking for alternatives to the kerosene his grandparents used to light their home. After investigating the possibility of importing solar lamps from China, he decided to make one himself. Using YouTube, he successfully acquired enough electronics expertise to make his lamp, and went on to seek crowd-funding support to scale up production through the Indiegogo website.
Cooking presents different challenges, as it is much more energy-intensive (making solar power less practical), and different countries have different availability of the fuels needed for stoves. In a bid to tackle these and other issues, the UN Foundation has launched a major initiative, the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves. Their target is for 100 million homes to adopt clean and efficient stoves by 2020. The Alliance notes the damage which current cooking solutions do to health, and to the environment. Because of the complex nature of the problem, a range of solutions are needed, including setting international standards to allow easy comparison of alternative stoves, educating women in the benefits and the use of these non-traditional stoves, and finding ways to tackle the logistical difficulties of getting fragile, heavy items “the last mile” to isolated rural communities. Potential Energy, an NGO collaborating with the US Department of Energy, is one of the Alliance’s partner organisations, and has already distributed over 32,000 stoves in Sudan, with further plans to work in Ethiopia. These examples show how humanity’s long-standing problems are now being lifted up into the lighted atmosphere of intelligent cooperation, where ideas and practical innovations can circulate more freely for the benefit of all.
In developed countries, heating and lighting are not usually causes of pollutants indoors (although the power stations which drive them may pollute the atmosphere), but if ventilation systems are poorly designed or malfunctioning, then health and comfort can be affected, leading to a range of symptoms often labelled sick building syndrome. Other possible sources of indoor pollutants are outgassing from some building materials, volatile organic compounds, ozone from some types of office equipment, molds, and even the naturally occurring radon gas. The main way to counteract these pollutants is to find ways to increase the rate of exchange of fresh air with the outside. While this can be done via mechanical air conditioning, there is an increasing movement to find ways to condition air through techniques inspired by nature. Apart from the energy saved, there is also the fact that mechanical air conditioning systems reduce the concentration of negatively charged ions. While investigation into the effect of ions on human health is still in its infancy, some studies have shown that patients exposed to negatively charged ions experience a feeling of exhilaration and lowered blood pressure. By contrast, those exposed to positively charged ions develop feelings of fatigue, dizziness and headache, increased blood pressure and general discomfort. Some winds can carry great concentrations of positive ions—the Föhn in Switzerland, the Santa Ana in the United States, the Sirocco in North Africa, the Chinook in the Rocky Mountains and the Sharav in the Middle East. Such winds have anecdotally been associated with a range of illnesses, from migraines to psychosis. We can imagine that as the mysteries of electricity in the air are revealed over time, the benefits to health will be enormous and there will be a great vitalisation of the human race.
According to the World Health Organisation, more than 1 billion people are estimated as being exposed to outdoor air pollution annually. Urban air pollution is linked to up to 1 million premature deaths and 1 million pre-natal deaths each year. Rapid urbanisation has resulted in increasing air pollution in major cities, especially in developing countries. According to a draft UN report for the
Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, the world’s richest countries are increasingly outsourcing their carbon pollution to China and other rising economies. Outsourcing of emissions comes in the form of electronic devices such as smartphones, cheap clothes and other goods manufactured in China and other rising economies but consumed in the US and Europe. Indeed, images of dense smog in Chinese and Indian cities are becoming more and more commonplace. So bad has the situation become, that a British architecture and design firm recently unveiled proposals for ‘bubble domes’- public areas enclosed by a special plastic dome where people could go to breathe filtered air. Along with the increase in manufacturing, increases in coal burning and car emissions are major sources of pollution in China and other Asian countries. Conditions tend to worsen during winter months when a combination of stagnant weather patterns mixed with increased coal burning in many Asian cities can create pollution and smog that can last for weeks. While most developed countries have put in measures to reduce these sources of air-borne pollution, these are yet to be adopted in many developing countries, although the Chinese government has pledged to toughen pollution standards and to commit sufficient financial resources to attack the problem.
The World Health Organisation works tirelessly to inform governments and the general public of the dangers posed by air pollution, and one of its most successful campaigns was a theme related to the direct pollution of the air we breathe through smoking, which we will look at in more detail in the next article.