How choolhas are making the urban poor ill

Last Updated 29 October 2019, 16:22 IST

While apartment-dwellers in Bengaluru are scheduled to get piped gas soon, one too many urban poor are still dependent on firewood and cow dung for cooking. While this works out cheaper for them in the short run, they ultimately pay for it with their health.

A research paper published in journal Current Science in 2018 by a veteran pulmonologist and a visiting professor at the Indian Institute of Science, Dr H Paramesh, revealed that choolhas release smoke equivalent to 400 cigarettes per hour. According to the study, households, where firewood, cooking gas and agricultural waste are used as fuel, showed about 47% prevalence of asthma.

To put it in context, note that asthma prevalence in houses that use gas and electricity for cooking were found to have asthma prevalence of less than 3%.

Further, the study revealed that ill-ventilated houses where a choolha is regularly used have a 42.7% prevalence of asthma. The slum behind Bagmane Tech Park in the city has many such huts. Bhagyamma (like many other women living in the slum, she does not have a second name) lives in a 150-square-feet hut and apart from the main door, there's no outlet for the smoke to escape when she cooks on her choolha.

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The 28-year-old told 101Reporters she spends at least four hours cooking every day. She said doing so leaves her coughing and breathless even as her eyes burn and get watery. Mother of three, she said her children undergo the same when she cooks.

Manu V Mathai, assistant professor at Azim Premji University with research interests in energy policy and governance, highlighted that burning solid fuel for cooking takes a toll on the health of women and children. Research has found a growing prevalence of Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), which causes irreversible damage to the lungs, among women in India because of high exposure to biomass fuel. COPD impairs the lung capacity. Prolonged exposure to smoke can lead to lung cancer and heart diseases too.

Dr Srigiri S Revadi, a pulmonologist at The Bangalore Hospital, explained that exposure to harmful particles emitted from burning firewood reduces lung resistance by injuring the respiratory tubes. He said that while the respiratory system can block pollutants from entering the body to an extent, this protection mechanism doesn't work in case of microscoping-scale particles emanating from firewood burning, called PM2.5. These are airborne Particulate Matter of a diameter less than 2.5 micrometre or about 3% as wide as a human hair.

The respiratory-diseases specialist said regular exposure to high levels of PM2.5 triggers production of mucus in the lungs, which substantially increases the probability of a viral or bacterial infection and COPD.

Thousandfold increase

According to the World Health Organization (WHO) air quality guidelines, the average concentration of PM2.5 in a day should not exceed more than 25 micrograms (µg, one-millionth of a gram) per metre cube. The Central Pollution Control Board's air quality standard specifies 60 µg/m3 as the 24-hour average.

This reporter examined the concentration of PM2.5 in a household that uses choolha with an industry-standard device and found it increases at least hundredfold when solid fuel is burnt.

The reporter visited the tiny room of 69-year-old Lalitha Bai, who lives with her two grandchildren in Someshwara Colony and measured the air quality before and during the choolha was used. A device that monitors air quality—SidePak Aerosol Monitor—showed that the level of PM2.5 before Lalitha started cooking was 13 µg/m3. Three minutes after she started cooking, the minimum level of PM2.5 was 4,620 µg/m3, the maximum 9,150 µg/m3 and the average 7,440 µg/m3. (The upper limit of this device is 450 µg/m3. When the pollution level is too high and the concentration of PM2.5 crosses the upper limit, the readings are likely to be not precise.)

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Lalitha Bai holds the device which records the level of PM2.5 in the air. This was done to gauge the amount of harmful particulate matter she is exposed to.

Sitting in front of the choolha, Lalitha's eyes began watering as she attended to the pot of boiling water. She said her eyes burn whenever she burns firewood and she also gets coughing fits.

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PM2.5 measuring device which beeped red while the reading was ongoing

Rani Desai, the co-founder of city-based NGO Anahat Foundation, shared that firewood-burning takes place in different pockets across Bangalore. The NGO conducts health camps in slums. Desai said her team saw substantial use of firewood in Machohalli on Magadi Road. Further, she said they saw many children affected with allergic cough and cold in these slums, these ailments being a side-effect of using choolha.

A WHO report titled ‘Burning Opportunity: Clean Household Energy for Health, Sustainable Development, and Wellbeing of Women and Children’ published in 2016 highlighted that women and children bear the brunt of smoke emanating from a choolha the most.

Government scheme

The Centre introduced Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana in 2016 to promote the use of clean cooking fuel by Below-Poverty-Line families. Under the scheme, eligible families are given a Liquified Petroleum Gas (LPG) connection at a subsidised rate. A study in Kolar district concluded that the Ujjwala scheme hasn't succeeded in weaning the poor away from harmful solid fuels.

Published in the journal Nature Energy, the study said that among the families they surveyed, ~35% Ujjwala beneficiaries did not refill their gas cylinder within the first year and only 7% bought four or more refills. The study further said that while a typical rural household would need about 10 cylinders a year, Ujjwala beneficiaries in Kolar used only 2.3 cylinders a year.

While Lalitha hasn't availed of the benefits of Ujjwala, she has an LPG cylinder and stove at home. She does use the LPG for cooking but hasn't discontinued using choolha as the latter is much cheaper. She said replacing the LPG cylinder costs about Rs750-Rs800, an amount that's too much for her. She said there are times when the cylinder runs out of gas and she has to use choolha alone for well over a month.

“What the people end up using is ultimately a question of cost. If firewood is cheaper than refilling the gas cylinder, to bring about a change in the attitude of the people is going to be difficult,” Mathai opined.

Bhagyamma's neighbour Renuka, 29, uses only a choolha for cooking and doesn't know much about Ujjwala scheme and its eligibility criteria. She added she's not sure how safe it will be to have a gas cylinder anyway since she has three little children. Bhagyamma shared this concern for safety.

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Renuka (L) and Bhagyamma (R)

(The author is Bangalore-based freelance writer and a member of 101Reporters.com, a pan-India network of grassroots reporters.)

(Published 27 October 2019, 13:51 IST)

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