Women using firewood face increasing health risks

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By our Correspondent

On a sunny afternoon in one Nigerian community at the Gwagwalada Council Area of Abuja, the Federal Capital Territory (FCT), a 35- year-old housewife was seated on a small stool beside the open firewood tripod, turning a pot of “tuwo”. Tuwo is a local delicacy in the Northern part of Nigeria, made from corn or guinea corn.

Using the edge of her wrapper to wipe her teary eyes and sweating face, the woman said she used firewood to cook at least three times a day. 

“I have been cooking with firewood for over 20 years, every day. I started cooking with firewood when I was young. Cooking with firewood is tedious. The smoke affects the eyes. It makes me cough and I think the smoke is the cause of my chest pain. I wish I had another alternative way to cook, but other means are expensive. My children and I can pick firewood anytime we go to the farm. It is available and cheaper.”

Another 38 year-old housewife who resides in Dukpa said she also wished to stop using firewood, but cannot afford the alternative.

“I know there are other alternatives like gas and electric cookers. But my husband cannot afford it. We cook in large quantities. The smoke affects my eyes and I usually have constant cough and chest pain. I use local medicine anytime the cough starts. I have a sister who has been coughing for a while too. She went to the hospital and was advised to stop using firewood if she wanted to get better,” she said.

These stories are some of the several narratives by women whose lives are being threatened by the harmful effects of inhaling the smoke that comes from cooking with firewood, charcoal and kerosene: all inefficient, polluting fuel which is a health risk and major contributor to respiratory and heart diseases, natal complications and premature deaths of children. 

According to a World Health Organization report, 4.2 million people die from exposure to outdoor air pollution, in addition to the 3.8 million whose deaths are linked to household smoke produced by dirty stoves and fuels. These solid fuels produce carbon, one of the biggest contributors to climate change after carbon dioxide.

Also, the woods for cooking in the form of firewood or charcoal contribute to deforestation which in turn has a negative impact on climate change. 

Speaking on the negative effect of cooking with firewood, a family health doctor in Abuja, Dr Tolu Omodunbi, said the use of firewood and solid fuel is like a double edged sword which has a harmful effect on the user and the environment. 

“For users, the smoke when inhaled affects the lungs and can lead to respiratory and heart diseases. Meanwhile, the smoke particles are deposited in the ozone layer which is still emitted into the environment and inhaled by people. The continuous use of firewood and other solid fuel constitutes dirty air and leads to air pollution which defects some of the Sustainable Development Goals, especially SDG3 (Good Health and Well-being, SDG 7 – Affordable and clean energy, SDG 11 -sustainable cities and communities and SDG 13 – climate action),” he said. 

Noting that fossil fuels are responsible for most of the harmful emissions linked to acute and chronic illnesses, the World Health Organization, in commemoration of this year’s World Health Day, called for tangible steps to curb their use. 

A report released in the lead-up to World Health Day showed that almost the entire global population (99%) breathes air that exceeds WHO air quality limits, and threatens their health. The findings have prompted the WHO to highlight the importance of curbing fossil fuel use and the need to take other tangible steps to reduce air pollution levels.

The WHO Regional Director for Africa, Dr Matshidiso Moeti, in her message to commemorate the day said this year’s theme serves as a timely reminder of the inextricable link between the planet and our health, as the burden of non-communicable and infectious diseases rises alongside growing incidence of climate-related challenges.

“We cannot afford to lose sight of the fundamental truth that the climate crisis, the single biggest threat facing humanity today, is also very much a health crisis,” she said.

WHO has been supporting the Nigerian government to strengthen health and environment systems to implement Climate action and Air Quality control measures. The Deputy Country Representative in Nigeria, Alexander Chimbaru said WHO has facilitated the activation of the National Technical Working Group on Climate Change and Health and 45 public health experts were trained on COP26 health sector climate action. 

He said “WHO is also providing guidance on the control of black soot air pollution in Port Harcourt Nigeria and has continued to disseminate WHO Air Quality Guidelines to the government at all levels to ensure monitoring of ambient air quality levels is within acceptable limits”.

World Health Day is celebrated every year on 07 April.  The theme of WHD for 2022 was: “Our Planet, Our Health.” 

It served as a timely reminder of the inextricable link between the planet and our health, as the burden of non-communicable and infectious diseases rises alongside growing incidence of climate-related challenges.

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