Posts tagged “householdairpollution”

The Return of London's Fog

London’s fogs may be about to make a comeback. Christine Corton, in the NYT:

In January, researchers at King’s College London announced that pollution levels on Oxford Street, in central London, had exceeded limits set for the entire year in just the first four days of 2015. Similarly alarming numbers have been recorded for other streets in the city — and yet the mayor, Boris Johnson, has delayed implementation of stricter air-quality measures until 2020.

What’s happening in London is being played out in cities worldwide, as efforts to curtail the onslaught of air pollution are stymied by short-term vested interests, with potentially disastrous results.

I just experienced a particular, particulate version of this hell first-hand in Delhi. For the last few days of my trip, a dense, thick haze - clearly not an innocuous fog - permeated the city and surrounding environs. On one trip back to our flat, all of my fellow taxi passengers complained of burning eyes and sore throats.

The closest PM monitor during that drive back — actually quite far from us — read over 250 �g/m3. That’s around 10x higher than a ‘bad’ day in the US. Moreover, we guessed that the levels we were experiencing were closer to 350 �g/m3. As a point of reference, the maximum mean hourly PM2.5 concentration in London since 2008 was approximately 30 �g/m3.

Corton points to a behavioral component to the historic London Fog episodes — a parallel I find particularly interesting:

There was a cultural component, too. The British were wedded to their open fires. Closed stoves, popular throughout much of Europe, especially in Germany, were shunned by Londoners. During World War I, Britons were exhorted, in the words of the famous song, to “keep the home fires burning.” Politicians were simply not willing to risk unpopularity by forcing Londoners to stop using coal and go over to gas or electric heating instead. In Britain today, in an echo of these earlier concerns, the government is cutting subsidies for onshore wind and solar farms, anxious not to offend voters in rural areas where such facilities would be built.

It took a disaster to force London to change direction. In 1952, a “great killer fog” lasted five days and killed an estimated 4,000 people. In a Britain trying to turn a corner after the death and destruction of the Blitz, this was unacceptable. A Clean Air Act was passed in 1956, forcing Londoners to burn smokeless fuel or switch to gas or electricity, power sources that had become much cheaper as these industries expanded.

Let’s hope that policy levers and momentum — not a disaster — can help transition away from solid fuels in India and beyond.

Field Notes - Measuring Village Air Pollution in Bajada Pahari

Twenty minutes from INCLEN’s SOMAARTH field headquarters lays Bajada Pahari1, a sleepy, picturesque village of ~120 households. The road to Bajada Pahari twists through bustling little villages, becoming more and more narrow until what remains is suited more for bullock carts, tractors, goats, and shepherds than personal vehicles. As the settlements dwindle, large open croplands — of tall sugarcane, bright yellow mustard, and various green sabjiyom2 — dominate the field of view. Enormous metal structures for high voltage powerlines stand erect yet untethered: no cables connect them. Below, and all around, the landscape is dotted with small, oblong discs of gobara3 used for fertilizer and as fuel.

Bajada Pahari is trapezoidal in shape, buttressed to its north by a small hill, upon which sits an old, abandoned watchtower4 and a small informal shrine to Shiva marked by narrow, red flags. Immediately behind the ridge, a green pool sparkles in the hazy winter daylight. Stray dogs roam a nearby shallow dig - perhaps an old quarry. Looking away from the village, pasturelands extend for as far as the eye can see. Barely visible brick kilns spew grayish black emissions. From the hilltop, the only audible sounds are chirping birds and rustling leaves, punctuated occasionally by a wailing child, a barking dog, a puttering engine.

We arrived in Bajada Pahari mid-morning and went first to the home of the Sarpanch, the head village elder5. At his residence, on the edge of town, a large gate opens first into a foyer full of mechanical farm tools — a tractor, a manual chopper — and a few simple cots and then leads into an outdoor space with trees, cows, chairs, and chulas. The Sarpanch arrived shortly thereafter, on a motorcycle bearing his title. After initial pleasantries and introductions, we discussed the village, which won an award for progress on sanitation and cleanliness, and our air pollution project.

Village air pollution is a hard concept to grok. For most, the pervasive images conjured by the word ‘rural’ are clean and pure, especially compared to places like Delhi, Mumbai, and Beijing. The sources of air pollutant emissions are no doubt different — quaint cookstoves, open fires, brick kilns, and small village industries look innocuous when compared to massive smokestacks and endless diesel vehicles visible in large Indian cities6. Tens to hundreds of these little village sources, simultaneously used over a small geography, probably adversely impacts air quality. Think of each one as a small contributor to a larger village smokestack.

The sarpanch is (unsurprisingly) thoughtful, measured, and interested. Mayur explains what we’d like to do, and why, succinctly and in simple language - a difficult feat he has perfected in his years with INCLEN. We talk about why we’re interested in understanding air pollution in a rural village (unmeasured, significant, and likely related to simple combustion of wood and dung) and why we think it’s important (trying to convince government to monitor and regulate the entire airshed, not just in urban areas). We show him some of our toys — including a miniature quadcopter, similar to the larger one we’ll use to measure some meteorological parameters and PM2.5. He laughs at the copter and approves of our plans. He decides we should discuss further with others on the village council.

We walk down the street, past a few cows lounging next to an abandoned biogas plant. At the intersection of two of the town’s biggest roads, a group of men and empty plastic chairs await us. Our discussion with them is similar to the previous one with the sarpanch. A few sarcastically questioned if we are asking them to stop cooking entirely. Others suggested their households, as proxies for the village, would be enthusiastic to move to LPG if the hassle of acquiring fuel wasn’t so great. They noted that there were no home deliveries and that it was difficult to coordinate pickup and dropoff of the cumbersome cylinders. One man, in particular, railed against the notion that food cooked on LPG was any different than that cooked over an open fire; he opined that it wasn’t the fuel that made the food, but the cook. His example was of village boys, who move to a city and eat food cooked on LPG by a stranger; they blame the poor taste on the fuel. He blamed the cook — or, more accurately, the fact that this food wasn’t the food they grew up eating, that they were accustomed to. A pretty neat (and new) insight. Not atypically, we spoke with only men about tasks they weren’t directly involved with.

We learned a little about electricity in the village, as well. It is reliable and consistent — rare for these areas. It arrived first in 1978. Many households have multiple electric appliances, including a washing machine, metal rods used to heat water, fans, and small electric stoves known as ‘heaters’. Our final task in the village involved locating a site to place an ambient air pollution and meteorological monitor, along with associated solar panels. We found a nice rooftop location, in the center of town, adjacent to a beautiful, decaying old farmhouse.

1 Alternate spellings include Bajda Pahadi, Bajda Pahari, Bajada Pahadi, and various other permutations. Depending on the spelling, the town’s name takes different meanings. My favorite is “lazy hill,” which sums it up succinctly. Bajada also has a Spanish meaning, which is curiously on point: “a broad alluvial slope extending from the base of a mountain range into a basin” or, more simply, “descent, slope.”

2 Vegetables

3 Dried bovine dung

4 The history of the tower is a little ambiguous; some of the village boys said it was an old British outpost, while others claimed it is a much older Mughal structure.

5 The sarpanch serves as a link between the local and regional governments and the community. There’s some push to pass along certain judicial and legislation-related powers to Sarpanches.

6 The situation is complicated by a national emphasis on cities as thriving centers of vitality, modernity, and growth. The concerns of rural villages don’t align with those of the metropolis - as such, their ranking in the national conscious and in the media is low. This despite ~80% of the population living in rural areas.

A case for "Making the Clean Available"

Kirk’s recent thoughts on how to address household air pollution crystallized in a piece published this week in Energy Policy.

It’s a very clear framing of a complex problem, split into to two related thoughts: (1) We can make the ‘available’ (biomass) clean, by improving combustion efficiency and driving down emissions and/or (2) we can make the clean (gas and electric cooking) available. Number (1) above requires proof that we can make a stove that performs well in the field, not just in the lab, and will be used by consumers. To be seen. The second approach, though, looks to pull policy levers to make proven clean technologies available. A parallel is drawn to other health interventions, like vaccines:

The health sector does not rely on NGOs and local community groups to develop vaccines and anti-retroviral drugs, but works to develop the best and most effective possible interventions using modern technology. Then, by negotiating price reductions, royalty flexibility, and pre- purchase agreements, it works to bring down the price. In parallel, it works to put into place the local supply chains to bring these effective interventions to poor populations, which has important roles for NGOs and community groups. It however does not promote different vaccines for the poor and the rich— health is for all.

Introducing HAPIT

I’ve lead recent efforts to create a web-based tool to estimate the impacts of household air pollution interventions (like stoves, gas dissemination, etc) using methods based on what’s known about household air pollution and its contribution to the Global Burden of Disease. The project began as an Excel-based spreadsheet before moving to the web leveraging Shiny, R, and a fair amount of javascript. From the site:

HAPIT estimates and compares health benefits attributable to stove and/or fuel programs that reduce exposure to household air pollution (HAP) resulting from solid fuel use in traditional stoves in developing countries. HAPIT allows users to customize two scenarios based on locally gathered information relevant to their intervention, which is the recommended approach. This will normally require preliminary field work at the dissemination site to demonstrate pollution exposures before and after the intervention in a representative sample of households. If no local information is available, however, HAPIT contains conservative default values for four broad classes of household energy interventions based on the available literature — liquid fuels, chimney stoves, rocket stoves, and advanced combustion stoves. As each country’s health and HAP situation is different, HAPIT currently contains the background data necessary to conduct the analysis in 55 countries — those with more than 50% of households using solid fuels for cooking and China, which has a lower percentage of households using solid fuels for cooking, but a high number in absolute terms. See the drop down list on the left and the Info tab for more details.

HAPIT also estimates program cost-effectiveness in US dollars per averted DALY (disability-adjusted life year) based on the World Health Organization’s CHOICE methodology (see Info tab for more detail). It takes a financial accounting approach in that it 1) does not take into account the household costs such as fuel and health expenses or time spent cooking or acquiring fuel and 2) assumes that programs are covering the cost of fuel-based interventions (such as annual LPG costs per household). For custom scenarios, users can adjust the per-household maintenance or fuel cost based on the characteristics of their programs. All program costs should be entered in current US dollars.

There are a number of nice features of HAPIT, but one I’m particularly fond of is the customized, session-based pdf generated by clicking “Download Report.” HAPIT’s a work in progress and will continue to evolve in the coming months.

Water, Salt, and Sugar

Nice, brief origin story of Oral Rehydration Salts and their deployment in Bangladesh. In particular, I enjoyed the parts describing the challenges of translating the science into practice in the field. Many of the lessons are relevant to our work in household energy and health.

  1. Use competent, well-trained field workers — and figure out clever ways to incentivize good, thorough work.

So how did BRAC tackle this daunting challenge? A three-month field trial in 1979 tested whether mothers recalled BRAC field workers’ instructions on how to prepare O.R.S. This was no easy task considering that poor, illiterate households did not have measuring spoons or cups.

BRAC’s verbal guidelines included the dangerous symptoms of diarrhea, when to administer O.R.S. and how to make it with a three-finger pinch of salt, a handful of sugar and a half liter of water. In another critical step, monitors returned to villages days or weeks after the initial instruction to quiz the mothers. Health workers were paid according to how many questions their subjects answered correctly, thus incentivizing quality instruction and not just the number of lessons. The trial found that verbally trained illiterate and semi-literate rural mothers could make properly formulated O.R.S. that passed laboratory tests.

  1. Ensure that field workers believe in and, when appropriate, use the items and practices they are promoting.

[Mr. Fazle Abed, BRAC’s founder and chairperson] identified other early hurdles that slowed the adoption of O.R.S. by mothers. After inquiring about slow adoption in some villages, he found that only a fraction of health workers believed in O.R.S. themselves; they didn’t even use it to treat their own diarrhea. To dispel doubts among trainers, BRAC brought them from the field to research labs in Dhaka to scientifically show how O.R.S. worked. Health workers were then advised to convince distrustful villagers by sipping O.R.S. during household training sessions.

  1. Don’t ignore the men, who have disproportionate sway over household decisions in many parts of the world.

After this breakthrough, adoption of ORS increased but then plateaued. Again, Mr. Abed tried to find the root of the problem. He enlisted anthropology students in Dhaka to interview people about why they weren’t using O.R.S. They found that men were alienated from the discussions between female health workers and mothers and so withheld support for O.R.S. In villages, “we had to take men into confidences so we told them exactly how O.R.S. worked,” Mr. Abed recalled. When men were included in discussions, adoption of O.R.S. increased significantly.

Obviously not a perfect analogy. ORS is curative — a response to ill-health — and requires a change in treatment behavior. Arguably the need for ORS decreases in a world with adequate access to clean water and sanitation — but absent that panacea, removing barriers to affordable, easy treatment is essential. The shift we seek to encourage, towards clean cooking, is meatier — it requires big changes to routine behavior. The lessons above still hold, though. We need field workers who believe in the interventions (and, conversely, interventions worthy of their belief), we need to compensate them well, and we need buy-in from whole communities.

The Petroleum Product That Can Save Millions Of Lives Each Year

Professor Kirk R. Smith, writing at Forbes:

The fracking furor over shale gas is the latest in a series of environmental debates that have bedeviled the oil and gas industry in spite of what might be considered an enviable record compared to related industries, coal for example. From off shore spills to the Keystone Pipeline, the industry probably feels a bit set upon at times. Similarly, its products are often the focus of environmental concern and consequent strict regulation, for example diesel air pollution. Finally, it often bears the brunt of concerns about carbon dioxide emissions leading to climate change risks.

The industry might keep in mind, however, that one of its products, liquefied petroleum gas (LPG — bottled gas containing propane and butane), is actually the most effective solution available for the largest environmental health risk in the world: cooking with solid fuels.


There is some opposition in the environmental community to promoting LPG, a fossil fuel, because of climate concerns. In reality, however, because of the poor combustion typical in biomass stoves, which produces black carbon, methane, and other climate-active pollutants, and the often non-renewable nature of the biomass supplies, which results in CO2 emissions, the net climate impact of a switch to LPG would be negligible. Even if only considering CO2, the incremental impact on global emissions of a switch to LPG would be no more than a percent of the emissions from the developed sector globally. It is not cooking by the poor that poses risk to the climate.

Nature chimes in on clean cookstoves

Today, in Nature:

Even though high-profile programmes have distributed millions of stoves to households in south Asia, Africa and Latin America, it is hard to find signs that the stoves are being widely used. There is a vast gap between reported accomplishments and what researchers see when they step into people’s homes.

The crux of the problem is that simply supplying the stoves does not establish demand for them.


Efforts could be redirected to providing people with the energy they most aspire to: not a stove designed by someone in the developed world to cook cleaner, but the actual stoves used in the developed world, which run on electricity or hydrocarbons such as liquefied petroleum gas (LPG).

This is not an absurd goal. The International Energy Agency (IEA) estimates that bringing electricity and clean-cooking facilities to every person on Earth by 2030 will cost US$49 billion a year. Although that is a considerable sum, the agency points to major commitments by Indonesia, Ghana and Nigeria to aggressively switch large portions of their population to cooking with LPG.

Where will all this new energy come from? It will require some additional consumption of fossil fuels, and that will increase the emissions of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. But the extra pollution would be minimal at the global scale: the IEA estimates that it would boost CO2 emissions by just 0.7% above its base scenario.


Urban Air Pollution in Delhi, India

I’ve got some fundamental issues with this recent article in the NYT, starting with its absurd title: Beijing’s Bad Air Would Be Step Up for Smoggy Delhi. The difference between levels in Beijing and Delhi are nigh indistinguishable shades of the same grey - we’re seeing similar and important trends playing out in large urban centers. We know the levels are health damaging and we know that the exposure-response relationships for a number of health impacts are not linear - a decrease from 400 to 300 ug/m3 doesn’t incur the same benefit in a population as the decrease from, say, 150 to 50 ug/m3. The latter decrease seems to have a far more profound and substantial positive impact on health. That, of course, is not to say we shouldn’t applaud any and all decreases in ambient air pollution — but instead to emphasize that we have a long way to go to fully protect public health.

No doubt, these issues need to become more prominent in Indian discourse, as the author acknowledges:

… [For] the first three weeks of this year, New Delhi’s average daily peak reading of fine particulate matter from Punjabi Bagh, a monitor whose readings are often below those of other city and independent monitors, was 473, more than twice as high as the average of 227 in Beijing. By the time pollution breached 500 in Beijing for the first time on the night of Jan. 15, Delhi had already had eight such days. Indeed, only once in three weeks did New Delhi’s daily peak value of fine particles fall below 300, a level more than 12 times the exposure limit recommended by the World Health Organization.

“It’s always puzzled me that the focus is always on China and not India,” said Dr. Angel Hsu, director of the environmental performance measurement program at the Yale Center for Environmental Law and Policy. “China has realized that it can’t hide behind its usual opacity, whereas India gets no pressure to release better data. So there simply isn’t good public data on India like there is for China.”

Experts have long known that India’s air is among the worst in the world. A recent analysis by Yale researchers found that seven of the 10 countries with the worst air pollution exposures are in South Asia. And evidence is mounting that Indians pay a higher price for air pollution than almost anyone. A recent study showed that Indians have the world’s weakest lungs, with far less capacity than Chinese lungs. Researchers are beginning to suspect that India’s unusual mix of polluted air, poor sanitation and contaminated water may make the country among the most dangerous in the world for lungs.

But even this doesn’t tell the whole story. Rural India is fraught with air pollution concerns of a different type — that arising from solid fuel combustion for household cooking. This ‘household air pollution’ results in approximately 900,000 annual deaths in India - 10% of national mortality. It disproportionately affects the rural poor, who, for the most part, don’t have access to modern fuels for cooking, heating, or lighting. It’s estimated that approximately 700 million people - more than twice the US population - in India rely on solid fuel use for household energy needs.

I applaud the NYT for covering air pollution in Delhi and across India. That said, neither of the above articles consider air pollution out of urban centers - and neither address the fact that these types of pollution events were commonplace in now-developed countries (see Donora, PA; London Smog; Thanksgiving Day Smog, NYC, 1966 ) as they stumbled in search of progress.

Tackling the world's forgotten killer

My advisor, writing at CNN:

About the worst thing you can do is stick burning stuff in your mouth. Every year, tobacco kills more than six million people, according to the World health Organization. Including secondhand tobacco smoke affecting non-smokers, it is the chief cause of ill-health (measured as lost years of healthy life) among men globally and for everyone in North America and Western Europe.

The terrible disease burden imposed by tobacco is recognized by most people, but the risk of another form of smoke is also highlighted in the new “Global Burden of Disease” report released last Month in The Lancet - smoke from cooking fires. About 40 percent of the world still cooks with solid fuels, like wood and coal, in simple stoves that release substantial amounts of the same kinds of hazardous chemicals found in tobacco smoke directly into the household environment. Indeed, a typical wood cookfire emits 400 cigarettes worth of smoke an hour.

This “household air pollution” is responsible for about 3.5 million premature deaths each year. Perhaps it is not surprising that the impact on health is so high when one considers that this smoke particularly affects a very vulnerable group - poor women in developing countries.

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