Biomass Health Concerns

While browsing the news and comments portion of an issue of Nature I came upon a note by two scientists, Ambuj D. Sagar of the Indian Institute of Technology Delhi, India, and Kirk R. Smith of the University of California, Berkeley, USA, [Nature 497, 317, (May 16 2013)] suggesting that someone on this planet should offer an innovation prize to the person who can invent better biomass burning stoves.   

Such stoves already exist, actually, but like most technologies, they are only available to the wealthiest 20% of the world’s population - many of whom ignore their existence in any case - and, as such, these stoves are irrelevant to the lives of the billions of people whose income falls well below the poverty line, living in some cases on a few dollars per day, sometimes even less. I think the authors are suggesting the stoves that people living on the per capita income of, say, Chad, might afford: a far tougher goal. In suggesting funding such a prize, the authors cited a reference that the effects of burning biomass are responsible for 4 million premature deaths per year.

I personally believe that the only ethically acceptable form of energy on this planet is the one with the lowest external costs, nuclear energy, but, much to my amazement, a huge segment of the world’s population seems to disagree on this matter.  It should be obvious on inspection that there are no forms of energy that have produced as much energy as nuclear has done with as low a loss of life, since doing so involves simple arithmetic calculations and a modicum of research. But somehow it’s not. You actually hear the slogan "split wood, not atoms" bandied about. I think it's supposed to be witty.

I have come to have a jaundiced view of the future, and engage less and less in elaborate arguments about the topic, but sometimes in addressing the pernicious hydra of anti-nuke hysteria, fear and ignorance – arguments, for example, that someone someday might die from Fukushima radiation releases or that tritium from Vermont Yankee will wipe out the entire state - I’ve taken to simply posting a link to the World Health Organization’s web page on deaths from air pollution, their “fact sheet” called air quality and health. The fact sheet says this about indoor air pollution deaths: 

Indoor air pollution is estimated to cause approximately 2 million premature deaths mostly in developing countries. Almost half of these deaths are due to pneumonia in children under 5 years of age…


… Poor indoor air quality may pose a risk to the health of over half of the world’s population. In homes where biomass fuels and coal are used for cooking and heating, PM levels may be 10–50 times higher than the guideline values…

I looked up the reference in the Nature comment, which was Lancet 2012; 380: 2224–60, which had the long winded title: “A comparative risk assessment of burden of disease and injury attributable to 67 risk factors and risk factor clusters in 21 regions, 1990–2010: a systematic analysis for the Global Burden of Disease Study 2010.”

On page 2240 of the Lancet paper it says this: 

Household air pollution from solid fuels accounted for 3·5 million (2·6 million to 4·4 million) deaths and 4·3% (3·4–5·3) of global DALYs in 2010 and ambient particulate matter pollution accounted for 3·1 million (2·7 million to 3·5 million) deaths and 3·1% (2·7–3·4) of global DALYs.

The WHO fact sheet gives no references, and it may be dated. Its figures are scary enough, but there may be some understatement.

By the way, nowhere in the Lancet paper is there any reference to the word “nuclear,” although there are figures for naturally occurring radon gas which, of course, derives from the decay natural uranium in ores and rocks. Theoretically the radon risk could be ameliorated by preventing its formation by fissioning uranium.

Just saying…

Have a nice day. 

Photo Credit: Biomass and Public Health/shutterstock