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IIT Mandi Study Reveals Alarming Health Risks from Traditional Cooking Practices that Use Biomass Fuel in Northeast Indian States

Mandi, 19th February 2024: Researchers at the Indian Institute of Technology Mandi (IIT Mandi), in collaboration with Institut National de Recherche et de Sécurité (INRS), France, and the National Physical Laboratory (CSIR-NPL), India, have conducted a comprehensive study on the detrimental effects of indoor air pollution resulting from traditional cooking practices in rural kitchens across three Northeast Indian states. In a series of three papers, a research team from IIT Mandi comprising of Mr. Bijay Sharma, Ph.D. scholar, and Dr. Sayantan Sarkar, Assistant Professor, School of Civil & Environmental Engineering, and his collaborators analyzed the extent and consequences of harmful emissions produced during indoor cooking using firewood and mixed biomass.

Despite advancements, more than 50% of the rural population in Northeastern India (Assam, Arunachal Pradesh, and Meghalaya) continues to use traditional solid fuels such as firewood and mixed biomass for cooking, leading to the release of significant pollutants into the kitchen air. The research aimed to gauge the severity and disease burden associated with the use of biomass cooking fuel compared to LPG-based cooking.

The researchers measured size-resolved concentrations of aerosols, i.e., particles suspended in the air, and toxic trace metals and carcinogenic organic substances bound with it, during cooking with firewood, mixed biomass, and Liquefied Petroleum Gas. They modeled the deposition patterns of these particles and associated chemicals in various sections of the human respiratory system. The resulting inhalation exposure to these chemicals during cooking was then calculated.

Utilizing this data, the researchers estimated the health impact (disease burden) on the rural NE Indian population, focusing on respiratory diseases such as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD), Pneumonia, and various cancers, using the ‘Potential Years of Life Lost’ (PYLL) metric. This metric estimates the potential number of years lost in a population due to premature death from ill health.

The study revealed that exposure to harmful aerosols in firewood/biomass-using kitchens was 2-19 times higher than in LPG-using kitchens, with respiratory deposition ranging from 29 to 79% of the total aerosol concentration. The fraction of population using firewood and mixed biomass faced 2-57 times higher disease burdens than LPG users.

Furthermore, the research found that the potential for oxidative stress, which leads to damaged cells, proteins, and DNA, was likely to be 4-5 times higher among people using biomass in kitchens than those using LPG. This stress is driven by the inhalation of metals and organic chemicals produced during indoor cooking using biomass fuel.

Highlighting the uniqueness of this research, Dr. Sayantan Sarkar, Assistant Professor, School of Civil & Environmental Engineering, IIT Mandi, said, “Our study combines real-world aerosol measurements in rural kitchens with dosimetry modeling to robustly estimate the impact of cooking emissions on the respiratory tract. It is the first effort to estimate disease burdens caused by exposure to indoor cooking emissions in India in terms of potential years of life lost. The study also measures for the first time the potential for oxidative stress resulting from such exposure in the Indian context, and quantifies the additional risk that biomass users face compared to those who use the cleaner alternative LPG.”

This research holds practical implications, emphasizing the urgent need for rural communities in Northeast India to transition to cleaner cooking methods. Recommendations include making LPG more accessible, improving cookstove programs, spreading awareness in rural areas, funding local solutions, and organizing health camps for rural women.

The three studies have been published in two journals – Science of the Total Environment and Environmental Pollution and are accessible through the following links:

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.167163

https://doi.org/10.1016/j.envpol.2023.123246

http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.scitotenv.2023.162539

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