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WHO study reveals health benefits of clean fuels in African homes and schools

08 February 2024

New research commissioned by the World Health Organization (WHO) and conducted by University of Liverpool experts highlights the urgent need for helping African homes and schools to transition to clean fuels.

The study is the first of its kind to offer a comprehensive analysis of the substantial health gain that can be realised when switching African homes from polluting fuels to clean fuels, such as bottled gas (liquefied petroleum gas, LPG). 

Evidence from this global evidence synthesis has crucial energy and health policy implications for the region.

In sub-Saharan Africa, more than 80 percent of the population relies on solid fuels (firewood, charcoal) and kerosene for cooking, heating and lighting in their homes. 

However, pollution from burning these fuels is responsible for more than 680,000 premature deaths each year in the region.

The new paper from the University of Liverpool demonstrates a significantly lower risk of a range of health conditions when switching from polluting solid fuels and kerosene to use of clean gas for cooking or heating. 

This paper presents the latest piece of research completed by the NIHR Global Health Research Unit on CLEAN-Air(Africa), a collaboration funded by the UK Government to address the major global health challenge of household air pollution. 

CLEAN-Air(Africa) is a partnership of public health experts from academic, research, and clinical institutions from the UK, Cameroon, Kenya, Tanzania, Rwanda, and Uganda. 

Working with governments from each country, the collaboration provides evidence to help inform policies to scale clean cooking for households and schools.

This is the first systematic review with meta-analyses that has comprehensively assessed all health effects from the use of gaseous fuels (natural gas, LPG and biogas), compared to both polluting fuels and electricity, for household cooking and heating on a global scale. 

Previous systematic reviews have been limited, due to a paucity of evidence, reliance on historical data and/or a focus on single health outcomes or specific energy uses.

Although the review identifies a small increase in risk from the use of gaseous fuels compared to electricity for childhood asthma, pneumonia and chronic obstructive respiratory disease, the substantial health gain from switching from polluting solid fuels and kerosene to LPG is critical. 

As noted by the International Energy Agency in a recent report, LPG is the most realistic option for rapid scale to clean cooking for much of sub-Saharan Africa and is critical for clean energy policy in the region with only six years to the Sustainable Development Goal 7 (universal energy access) target.

Dr Elisa Puzzolo, who led the research, said: “Exposure to household air pollution from polluting domestic fuel represents a substantial global public health burden. 

“Switching from polluting to gaseous household fuels will likely lower the health risks and associated morbidity and mortality.

“By summarising both potential positive and negative health impacts from household use of gaseous/alcohol fuels, this paper provides important contemporary evidence to inform national clean energy policies.

“Unfortunately, Western concerns over the promotion of fossil fuels such as LPG are inhibiting investment in the scale of clean cooking in the Global South. 

“Together with the Stockholm Environmental Institute and international leads in climate impact modelling, CLEAN-Air(Africa) has also published seminal research demonstrating that the substantial health gain from the global scale of LPG for clean cooking does not impact climate. 

“In addition, prospects for production of fully renewable BioLPG from municipal solid waste in African cities are becoming a reality.”

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