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The global community must take action to reduce deaths from indoor air pollution, which kills more than 1.6 million individuals in the developing world a year, says a report released today (26 November).

Smoke from burning wood, dung and crop residues on cooking stoves, often in unventilated kitchens, kills more people than malaria and nearly as many as unsafe water and sanitation.

But little has been done to tackle the problem. This is despite evidence that simple technologies and practices can dramatically reduce death and illness from smoke inhalation, says a report by the organisation Intermediate Technology Development Group (ITDG).

The report, Smoke: The Killer in the Kitchen, argues that "it is nothing short of an international scandal that [indoor air pollution] has been largely ignored". It calls for a 'global action plan' to bring the issue up the political agenda.

As part of this action plan, the report urges the United Nations to convene a high-level conference to set out a global strategy to tackle indoor air pollution. It also calls for a reference to indoor air pollution to be added to the Millennium Development Goals — internationally agreed targets to reduce poverty by 2015. And it calls for a 'sustainable financing' initiative to ensure that sufficient resources are available.

A Maasai woman cooking under a recently installed ITDG smokehood
"Indoor air pollution is a subject that is virtually unheard of," says Alison Doig, public affairs officer at ITDG and co-author of the report. "But now we have a substantial body of evidence that inhaling smoke causes illness".

Several studies have confirmed that inhaling smoke from cooking fires can cause lung cancer and respiratory infections such as pneumonia. Levels of smoke particles in kitchens where biomass is burnt are often many times higher than the safety limits recommended by the US Environmental Protection Agency.

The ideal solution, Doig says, would be to use cleaner fuels, such as kerosene and liquid petroleum gas (LPG). But most people at risk either have no access to cleaner fuels or are too poor to afford them.

However, a study released last year by ITDG shows that simple measures such as installing smokehoods and chimneys that remove smoke from kitchens, and adding eave spaces to improve ventilation can have a dramatic impact on health (see Smokehoods slash indoor air pollution).

"There are solutions to the problem," says Doig. "Now it's time to act and to really scale up the action."

Link to the full report Smoke: The Killer in the Kitchen

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