New global WHO guidelines for indoor air quality: inefficiently burning solid fuels damages health and climate

WHO/Nigel Bruce

Burning solid fuel contributes to unhealthy indoor and outdoor air quality.

WHO’s new guidelines for indoor air quality on household-fuel combustion, published today, set for the first time emission targets to address the serious health risks from burning fuels. They also oppose the use of unprocessed coal and kerosene, which severely pollutes indoor air and creates risks of fire, burns and poisoning. Worldwide, nearly 3 billion people still lack access to clean fuels and technology for cooking. In 2012, according to a WHO report, 4.3 million people died prematurely as a result of household air pollution.

While cooking over an open fire is not commonplace in countries in the WHO European Region, the health- and climate-damaging effects from burning solid fuels, including wood and other biomass, for domestic heating remain critical issues. Over 117 000 deaths due to household air pollution occurred in the Region in 2012.

Household-fuel combustion may increase outdoor air pollution

Household-fuel combustion also contributes to outdoor air pollution, which was responsible for over 482 000 deaths in the European Region in 2012. Where use of solid fuel is widespread across a community, emissions may result in outdoor air pollution exceeding values in the WHO air quality guidelines. Deaths from outdoor air pollution occur in all European countries, regardless of income, but those from household air pollution are over five times greater in low- and middle-income countries than in wealthier ones.

“It will be difficult to tackle outdoor air pollution problems in many parts of the European Region without addressing fuel combustion at the household level, along with other sources, such as transport and industrial production,” said Marie-Eve Héroux, Technical Officer, Air Quality and Noise at WHO/Europe. “Reducing emissions from household fuel combustion in turn can have immediate benefits for health, and reduce some of the pollutants that cause climate change.”

Guideline recommendations

Meeting new emission targets means that some 90% of homes globally will meet WHO’s air quality guideline values. The guidelines’ recommendations stress the need to improve access to cleaner home energy sources, particularly in low- and middle-income countries.
Clean, sustainable sources of household fuel have an important role in climate change mitigation especially by reducing substantial carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions. WHO recommends that governments and other agencies developing and implementing policy on mitigating climate change consider action on household energy, and make assessments to maximize health and climate gains. In addition, clean technologies and fuels must be affordable by the lowest-income households.

WHO/Europe’s work on air pollution and climate change

In the 2010 Parma Declaration on Environment and Health, Member States in the Region committed themselves to preventing disease by improving outdoor and indoor air quality. WHO will support European countries in implementing the new guidelines, which will be reviewed and updated periodically.

The Task Force on the Health Aspects of Long-range Transboundary Air Pollution, chaired by WHO/Europe’s European Centre for Environment and Health, will use the most recent results to intensify support to Member States that develop their policies independently from European Union (EU) processes.

WHO/Europe works on climate change and health by addressing the health benefits of policies reducing greenhouse gas emissions in a variety of sectors.