Bridging Knowledge Gaps: the Effects of Air Pollution on Human Health

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Measuring indoor air quality exposure while cooking morning meals
Photo: Parth Sarathi Mahapatra/ICIMOD

Air pollution and the problems associated with it have gained the attention of people in the Hindu Kush Himalaya and the world at large. As more studies reveal the linkages between air pollution and human health, more people have started paying attention to the issue. Exposure to indoor air pollution resulting from everyday activities such as cooking and heating is associated with the development of respiratory diseases. These findings have the potential to impact the daily activities of millions of people in rural areas of developing countries. 

There is a growing body of knowledge related to the health hazards of ambient air pollution drawn from studies conducted in different parts of the world. However, there is very little knowledge available on exposure and the health effects associated with household cooking and ambient pollution in Nepal. 

Parth Sarathi Mahapatra, a research analyst with the Atmosphere Initiative at the International Centre for Integrated Mountain Development (ICIMOD), says that there have been only a few studies with a multi-parameter measurement approach to assessing indoor air quality exposure and its immediate response on physiological functions, especially with respect to cooking using biomass in Nepal. In a recent field study conducted near Chitwan National Park in the Terai region of Nepal, Mahapatra and his team conducted a measurement of associated physiological response to comprehend short term exposure to air pollution caused by different modes of indoor cooking—biomass, biogas, and liquefied petroleum gas (LPG). The ongoing study attempts to fill in existing knowledge gaps. 

Keeping parameters in mind, the team measured particulate matter (PM1, PM2.5, PM10), black carbon (BC), and carbon monoxide (CO) to assess air quality. Likewise, they also checked and recorded lung function, exhaled CO content, blood pressure, blood hemoglobin, and carboxyhemoglobin in order to monitor the physiological response of the samples. 

Data collection through questionnaire in Chitwan
Photos: Siva Praveen Puppala /ICIMOD

The team collected data from four villages— Gauthali, Simreni, Jankauli and Magar—in Sauraha, Chitwan. They measured the pollutant exposure and epidemiological response of nearly 100 participants between the ages of 20 and 30. The measurements were taken twice a day, one in the morning and another in the evening, during cooking hours. Because it is mostly women who are involved in cooking, the data collected is mostly from female samples. The team also conducted a questionnaire based survey to identify the participants’ socio-cultural and health status.

Siva Praveen Puppala, an aerosol scientist at ICIMOD explains that the study, a strong effort to measure indoor air quality exposure, “will analyze the chemical composition of emissions from different modes of indoor cooking and associated impacts on cell line”. Scientists from the Institute of Life Science in Bhubaneswar, India, will assist the analysis.

Doctors from Kathmandu Medical College collecting health end point measurements
Photo: Parth Sarathi Mahapatra/ICIMOD

The study is being undertaken in partnership with Kathmandu Medical College (KMC) and Nepal Health Research Council (NHRC). A team of female doctors lead by Dr Ram Krishna Chandyo conducted the personal measurements in the field. The same team will analyze data at a later stage of the study. The analysis is expected to show how indoor air pollution exposure affects the physiological functioning of people. 

Participants, doctors, and local health workers watching Dhuwa, a short telefilm about air pollution

In each village, on the final day of fieldwork, the participants and other villagers gathered to watch Dhuwa, a short telefilm about air pollution resulting from open fires. The film was screened to raise awareness on the issue. A one-day health camp was also set up in each village on the final day to provide general consultation and distribute selected medicines for free with the help of doctors from KMC and health assistants from Bachholi Health Post, Chitwan. 

The National Trust for Nature Conservation (NTNC) and ICIMOD staff Karuna Bajracharya and Anobha Gurung supported the study.