Indoor air concentrations of volatile organic compounds (VOCs), carbon monoxide (CO), carbon dioxide (CO2), nitrogen dioxide (NO2), and dust particles were measured for 49 biomass and 46 fossil fuel users in urban slums of Dhaka, Bangladesh. The health impacts of these pollutants were assessed on 65 and 51 children under five years old from families who use biomass and fossil fuel as main source of energy, respectively. Mean concentrations of CO were found to be significantly higher in biomass fuel users (P = 0.010), while geometric mean concentrations of benzene, xylene, toluene, hexane, total VOCs, and NO2 were significantly higher (P < 0.01) in the fossil fuel users. Symptoms such as redness of eyes, itching of skin, nasal discharge, cough, shortness of breath, chest tightness, wheezing, or whistling chest were found to be associated with the choice of biomass fuel, with the odds ratio ranging from 4.0 to 6.3. No significant association of use of biomass fuel with respiratory diseases, eczema, diarrhea, or viral fever was observed after adjustment for potential confounders. These results suggest a significant association between the biomass fuel-using population and respiratory symptoms. These symptoms may not be due to the pollutants only, as some other underlying causes may be present.
Practical implications: The health of children under five years old in Bangladesh, especially those living in poor socioeconomic conditions, is considered to be worsening because of indoor air pollution. It is commonly suggested that biomass fuel should be replaced by fossil fuel, as pollution levels are believed to be higher with biomass fuel. Our findings, however, suggest that pollution can be higher with fossil fuels, and indicate that a switch in fuel from biomass to fossil does not necessarily improve the children's health. Awareness programs should therefore be undertaken to avoid the unnecessary use of gas. Clean fuels and clean stoves should also be ensured to reduce emissions of indoor air pollutants.