Recently I met a pregnant woman who was into cashew processing in one of my ethnographic works. As I spoke with her it turned out to be a very sad conversation. She had lost two of her children within twenty-eight days of their births and had had one still birth. In her current pregnancy, she looks ill and coughs recurrently. When I inquired about what was wrong, she could not give any answer because she had not been able to seek any medical attention. I asked when she started her cashew business, and she said “about ten years ago”, meaning the two children that died and the still birth all happened while she was in the business. Due to lack of death registration in this part of the world, the cause of the death of her children was not known. However, judging from the way she was coughing, I could tell that the woman has been inhaling a lot of smoke in the course of processing the cashew nuts. This smoke has been affecting her and her children causing her series of ill health and her children to die shortly after birth. The pathetic aspect of the conversation was that when I put it to her that smoke from her business could be responsible for her condition and the death of her children, she affirmed it, confirming that she usually coughs out black soot, especially while she is pregnant. My observations while talking with her confirmed her narration.
This is exactly what more than 2 billion rural dwellers who rely on firewood for heating and cooking go through in developing countries. Wood fuel releases a number of hazardous pollutants, including carbon monoxide, sulphur, nitrogen oxides, and particulate matter. This predominantly inefficient cooking method is the leading cause of Indoor Air Pollution (IAP), which constitutes a lot of health issues and consequently deaths particularly for children and their mothers.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), four million women and children die prematurely in developing countries every year from cooking carbon emissions, a figure two times the total number of global deaths from Covid-19 in 2020. Nigeria experiences the highest number of in-door air pollution deaths in Africa, constituting about 79,000 deaths annually. In Nigeria, majority of the population lives in rural areas where the only method of cooking is the traditional three stone fire which requires huge amounts of firewood and produces large amount of smoke. In many households, poor ventilation arising from nonexistence of chimneys, exacerbates the effects of these pollutants, and women and children are often exposed to them at a significant level each day.
Exposure to fuel wood smoke has been implicated as a causal agent for respiratory and eye diseases, including cataract and blindness. As a result, a large number of women who do the cooking, as well as young children and infants in the vicinity of the cooking areas are mostly vulnerable. Deaths from acute lower respiratory infection in children younger than five years account for about 90% of the total number of deaths from indoor air pollution in Nigeria, exposing them to asthma, chronic lung conditions, heart attacks, strokes, headaches, fatigue, dizziness and nausea. Studies have attributed stillbirths, infant low birth weight, and adverse pregnancy outcomes in women to poor in-door air quality. Moreover, constant search for fuel wood represents a large burden for women, particularly in rural areas and makes them vulnerable to sexual harassment, abuse and rape amidst heavy insecurities and insurgencies. Understanding how women and children particularly girls are impacted by in-door air pollution in developing countries, should be a global concern.