A Look At Why Women Are More Vulnerable To Air Pollution, On Sept 7th, Intl’ Day Of Clean Air

The government should accept that women are exposed to dangerously high levels of indoor air pollution, and provide subsidies to ensure that even the poorest households can afford cooking gas.

The United Nations has declared September 7 as the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, to shine the spotlight on air pollution and its effect on human health, and especially the health of women.

Clean air is a fundamental human right. However, according to the World Health Organization (WHO), 99.9% of India’s population lives in areas where air pollution exceeds WHO air qualify guidelines. 14 of the world’s 20 most polluted cities are in India, and a large proportion of people breathe air that are 5 times more polluted than the accepted norms.

What are the common sources of air pollution?

The most common sources of air pollution are factories, refineries, coal plants, stubble burning, forest fires, emissions from motor vehicles, burning of industrial and domestic waste and burning of solids for the purpose of cooking. Most of these can only be addressed at the institutional level, and will require government and industry to work together for common good.

What is not well recognises is the fact that while all these contribute to air pollution, due to both biological and socio-economic disparities, women are far more vulnerable to in terms of both type and frequency of exposure.

Why are women (particularly economically backward women) more vulnerable to air pollution?

There is sufficient medical evidence to show that women are biologically more affected by exposure to the same amount of air pollution as men. Despite this, local, national and international efforts to mitigate air pollution treat it as a generic issue which affects everybody, and do not specifically focus on women.

Apart from the biological reasons, gender dynamics, as well as socioeconomic and cultural differences make women far more vulnerable to air pollution.

There are three main reasons why women are subject to greater exposure to air pollution than men –

  • Cooking is seen as the prime responsibility of women, which exponentially increases their exposure to indoor air pollution from burning solid fuels. (This considers the fact that nearly 65% of India’s population is in rural areas).
  • Women perform the roles of caregiving, child rearing and housework, which keeps them indoors in houses that are often poorly ventilated, which increases their exposure.
  • Women, especially poor women, are often “no choice walkers”, which increases their exposure to vehicular pollution.

Most households rely on solid fuels like firewood, coal and even dry leaves for their cooking needs. If not these solid fuels, then there are the kerosene stoves that also emit acrid fumes. These fuels release huge amount of polluting gases, which in the absence of adequate ventilation keep circulating in the house. Though there was a move to supply cooking gas to every household, the price of cooking gas is now so high it has become virtually unaffordable to the majority of women in the country, and they have been forced to revert to traditional (and polluting) fuels. The smoke keeps circulating in the houses, continuing to expose the women to the pollutants.

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In India, there is gender inequality in terms mobility and access to transport. If a household has one vehicle, it is used by the (male) head of the household, and women and children are forced to either walk or take public transport. Walking on busy roads exposes women to higher levels of emissions from vehicles. For safety reasons, women prefer to walk on busy streets, rather than deserted lanes, and this further increases their exposure to air pollution.

How can inequities in exposure to air pollution be mitigated?

The government should accept that women are exposed to dangerously high levels of indoor air pollution, and provide subsidies to ensure that even the poorest households can afford cooking gas. This is imperative because if indoor air pollution is not tackled immediately, we will have a gendered medical emergency of pandemic proportions.

While not much can be done to reduce a woman’s dependence on walking and public transport, by providing subsidies on public transport, more women can be encouraged to shift from walking long distances to traveling most of the way by bus/ train. Subsidies on public transport will also empower more women to seek livelihoods beyond those in their immediate neighbourhood, and some of this income can be invested in purchasing less polluting cooking fuels.

These would, however, require governments to recognise that women are extra vulnerable to air pollution, and to have the political will to mitigate them.

What can we as individuals do to reduce air pollution?

Most of the sources of air pollution can only be checked with government(s) and industry acting together. Some of these mitigating measures will require high capital investment, and the government may need to provide incentives for industry to adopt cleaner technology. There should also be higher penalties for polluting industries. Sometimes, two or more governments may need to co-operate to tackle pollution- like the one that chokes Delhi/ NCR every year.

However, while we wait for government and industry to get there act together, there are things tht we can do as individuals.

Emissions from motor vehicles are a major source of air pollution especially in cities. We can shift partially or completely to public transport and/ or car pool to cut down our personal emissions. Even if all households pledge not to use their cars on one specific day a week, there will be a dip in total emission.

Consuming local produce reduces the distance that the goods need to be transported, thereby bringing down the total emissions. “Buy local”, therefore, has an environmental advantage in addition to the helping local livelihoods.

Burning solid waste at landfills also contributes substantially to air pollution in cities. Adopting the 3Rs- reduce, reuse, recycle– will impact the quantum of waste that goes to landfills. Segregating our garbage, composting wet waste and ensuring that the dry waste that can be recycled is sent to recyclers will indirectly impact air quality.

Additionally, there is one simple way to mitigate the effect of pollution. There is, in George Monbiot’s words, ‘a magic machine that sucks carbon out of the air builds itself up and costs very little’. This magic machine is called a tree. Planting new trees and protecting existing trees from felling are ways we can increase carbon sequestering. Growing indoor plants, especially ones which sequester particulate matter, will improve the quality of air indoors.

Clean air is a human right. On the International Day of Clean Air for Blue Skies, let us take a pledge to–

  • Reduce the use of private vehicles, and walk, cycle or take public transport when we can
  • Segregate our household waste and ensure recycling
  • Buy local produce, especially fruits, vegetables and groceries
  • Protect the trees in our locality from felling/ pruning.

Image source: YouTube/ Project Surya

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About the Author

Natasha Ramarathnam

Natasha works in the development sector, where most of her experience has been in Education and Livelihoods. She is passionate about working towards gender equity, sustainability and positive climate action. And avid reader and occasional read more...

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