The Smog Isn’t Just China’s Problem

The smog choking Beijing, Shanghai and even the northern city of Harbin is not simple industrialization, as much of the smoke comes from rudimentary heating and cooking stoves. But it is related – greatly increased urbanization packs people together allowing thousands or hundreds of thousands of coal and biomass fires to really smog up a city.

And, while Harbin and Beijing are getting most of the publicity, they have problems common to much of the developing world. It’s not just the poor of Mongolia and India who are cooking themselves into an early grave. A Chinese government official has recently blamed Beijing’s smog partially on cooking, although he acknowledges the role of factories, cars and other sources

Harbin, famous for its ice and snow festival and Russian architecture, surpassed even Beijing’s “airpocalypse” of last January in terms of bad air, measuring 1,000 micrograms per cubic meter of 2.5-micrometer particulate matter in some spots, compared to airpocalypse’s 900 height. If that doesn’t make much sense just keep in mind that the World Health Organization recommends only 25 for daily exposure.

Reasons given by officials for the smog, according to The Guardian, included increased coal burning on the first day of winter, an inversion layer and the burning of straw as well as vehicle emissions.

The fact is that the usual suspects – coal, cooking and cars – are killing people in huge numbers across the Asian continent. In the Mongolian capital of Ulan Bataar a combination of exceptionally cold winters and slums filled with urban gers (yurts) heated by indoor stoves is deadly. These make Ulan Bataar the second most polluted city in the world after Ahvaz in Iran according to the World Trade Organization. I shudder to think about what they’re doing in Ahvaz (much of their smog reportedly comes from Turkey), but in Ulan Bator ten percent of all deaths can be attributed to air pollution.

Traditional living is all well and good, but when it’s killing people – and that killing is exacerbated by modernization and urbanization – something’s got to be done. In India 160 million households use soot-emitting stoves, which as you can imagine smog the place up. So far attempts to significantly change this situation have failed.

According to Shoba Shukla of the Citizen News Service, these stoves contribute to overall acute respiratory infections that kill some 4.5 million adults and children each year across the globe. Influenza affects 3-5 million people each year and causes an average of 250,000-500,000 deaths. Globally there are an estimated 156 million cases of pneumonia each year, the leading cause of death in children under 5, killing 1.3 million of them in 2011. Tuberculosis caused another 1.4 million deaths in 2011.

These are settings in which people share air–crowded neighborhoods, public transportation, public facilities, health clinics, work places and schools–which are breeding grounds for airborne diseases. The risk is always greater where people with weak health, such as the aged or people with compromised immune systems, come into contact with people who are sick.

Air pollution from tobacco smoke, biomass fuels and car emissions jointly contributes to air quality and airborne infections. According to many youngsters interviewed in India and abroad, urbanization and consumerism go hand-in-hand with deteriorating ambient air quality. Nearly 3 billion people, most living in low-income countries, rely on solid fuel for cooking and heating, air pollution from which directly caused 3.5 million premature deaths in 2010 and another half million through its contribution to outdoor air pollution.

Acute lower respiratory infections (ALRIs) in children, chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder and lung cancer in women exposed to coal smoke have been shown to have a strong association with solid fuel smoke. Nearly half of the deaths among children under 5 years old from ALRIs are due to particulate matter inhaled from indoor smoke from household solid fuels.

"The major source of indoor air pollution comes from domestic use of solid fuels," said Chen-Yuan Chiang, Director of the, Department of Lung Health and Non-Communicable Diseases, International Union Against Tuberculosis and Lung Disease. "Globally, about 50 percent of all households and 90 percent of rural households use solid fuels (coal and biomass) as the main domestic source of energy. About 50 percent of the world population is exposed to the harmful effects of these combustion products. Strategies to reduce indoor air pollution include making available alternate, cleaner types of fuel, improving access to better stoves used for cooking and heating, improving the quality of the ventilation used for the stoves and providing education for behavior change."

The cook stoves and the soot that arises from burning biomass — firewood, dung and agricultural residues — are now the focus of a global community fighting climate change as well. The soot — or black carbon — is a killer. It causes respiratory problems and leads to premature deaths. Women and children in poor households are the worst hit. The black carbon particles also contribute to global warming.

Although growing middle classes do lead to more CO2 and other pollution in the form of industry and car use, the problem with soot or black carbon is largely down to poverty. Families simply can’t afford electricity or gas stoves. So they burn wood, coal or cow dung, all of which produce a lot of particulate matter – a dangerous human health hazard.

Much of the solution lies with women, since they do the vast majority of cooking in Asia’s traditional societies. The Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves offers clean burning alternatives aimed precisely at these women. One design is open sourced and subsidized at £40 ($65), which is unfortunately still too much for many families I imagine. Read more on that from the BBC.

(Another version of this article appeared on Asian Correspondent)