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Women's Day: why women are more susceptible to air pollution

The use of polluting cooking fuels contributes to household air pollution and has a detrimental effect, particularly on women and children who spend more time indoors

Women with greater exposure to poor indoor air are also more vulnerable to other forms of emission, such as transport emissions, because of their reduced lung function.(iStock)

By Vandana Tyagi & Azra Khan

LAST PUBLISHED 08.03.2023  |  12:00 PM IST

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Poor air quality and the perennial grey pall that cloaks Indian cities get a lot of national, state and local level attention, particularly during the winter months. Meanwhile, another silent killer is slipping by undetected. Indoor air pollution is a lethal challenge that many grapple with throughout the year. In India, air pollution was responsible for 1.67 million deaths in 2019, according to a study in the Lancet, of which household air pollution was responsible for 0.61 million fatalities, i.e., a staggering 36% of all deaths reported.

The use of polluting cooking fuels contributes to household air pollution and has a detrimental effect on human health, particularly affecting women and children who typically spend more time indoors due to their daily activities. The effect of this exposure is worse in the case of pregnant women, as air pollution affects fetal growth, resulting in premature birth, low birth weight, growth limitations, and cardiovascular disorders. Additionally, social factors such as poverty, gender invisibility and inequality further increase the impact of household air pollution on women vis-à-vis their effect on men and boys.

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Women with greater exposure to poor indoor air are also more vulnerable to other forms of emission, such as transport emissions, because of their reduced lung function. As a result, women disproportionately experience respiratory health problems attributed to dual exposure to air pollutants from ambient and household toxins – the latter often arising from cooking with polluting fuels.

Indoor air pollution is greatly aggravated by the use of fuels such as wood, dung cake and crop residue and kerosene for cooking and heating. Low-income households prefer to use these fuels due to its free availability and easy access – especially in peri-urban and rural areas. According to the 2011 Census, 11% of the rural and 65% of the urban population used liquified petroleum gas (LPG) as their primary cooking fuel. This percentage increased to 61% in rural areas and 95% in urban areas as per a 2020 report by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW). While the coverage has increased, rural areas are still lagging in LPG usage despite subsidies and government incentives. Creating ward- and village-level emission inventories will give greater insight into the use of solid fuels, which is critical to develop more focused national-level policies.

In Indian households, women spend more time than men on unpaid domestic work, which includes cooking, cleaning, and caregiver responsibilities. As per the Time Use Survey (TUS – 2019) data, nearly 92% of women aged 15 to 59 reported doing domestic chores at some time during the day. In comparison, only 27% of men reported doing so, indicating a profound male-female gap in domestic work participation. Time spent on various indoor activities and socio-economic status are the two major indicators of exposure to household air pollution in both urban and rural contexts.

What can be done? Household air pollution (mainly PM2.5) can be reduced to a great extent, by shifting from traditional fuels to LPG. The government has implemented several programs to increase LPG coverage over the past decade, including the Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana, which increased LPG penetration substantially. However, households in rural areas continue to use traditional fuels alongside LPG. According to another CEEW report, though 85% of the households in India use LPG, only 47% are using it exclusively. While the extra cost of an LPG connection may give households pause, hampering uptake, another challenge is that the head of the family, who is often male, does not involve women family members in key financial decisions regarding the household. According to another report by The Collaborative Clean Air Policy Centre, it was observed that in the rural areas, while LPG connections are registered under the name of an adult female member of the household, only one-third of these women decided when to order an LPG cylinder, and only in 14% of the households did women place the order themselves. Women also continue to use traditional fuels due to lack of awareness about the associated negative health outcomes.

It is evident that access to, and control over, income and other productive assets such as savings and property are key components of women’s economic empowerment, along with agency, or the enabling of women to make and act on their own choices. Empowering women and raising awareness are of utmost importance, and there should be concerted efforts to sensitize older female and male members of the household, who are often the primary decision-makers in rural households.

Making the transition to cleaner modes of cooking is an additional cost, but it will pay rich dividends in terms of better health outcomes, time saved in procuring biomass, and creating space for women to explore other avenues of economic growth and self-dependence.

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Vandana Tyagi is senior associate, air quality program and Azra Khan is manager, sustainable cities and transport program, WRI India. The views expressed are personal.

Also read: More funding needed globally to fight air pollution crisis