Background and purpose: In Pakistan, almost 70% of the population lives in rural areas. Ninety-four percent of households in rural areas and 58% in urban areas depend on biomass fuels (wood, dung, and agricultural waste). These solid fuels have poor combustion efficiency. Due to incomplete combustion of the biomass fuels, the resulting smoke contains a range of health-deteriorating substances that, at varying concentrations, can pose a serious threat to human health. Indoor air pollution accounts for 28,000 deaths a year and 40 million cases of acute respiratory illness. It places a significant economic burden on Pakistan with an annual cost of 1% of GDP. Despite the mounting evidence of an association between indoor air pollution and ill health, policy makers have paid little attention to it. This review analyzes the existing information on levels of indoor air pollution in Pakistan and suggests suitable intervention methods.
Methods: This review is focused on studies of indoor air pollution, due to biomass fuels, in Pakistan published in both scientific journals and by the Government and international organizations. In addition, the importance of environmental tobacco smoke as an indoor pollutant is highlighted.
Results: Unlike many other developing countries, there are no long-term studies on the levels of indoor air pollution. The limited studies that have been undertaken indicate that indoor air pollution should be a public health concern. High levels of particulate matter and carbon monoxide have been reported, and generally, women and children are subject to the maximum exposure. There have been a few interventions, with improved stoves, in some areas since 1990. However, the effectiveness of these interventions has not been fully evaluated.
Conclusion: Indoor air pollution has a significant impact on the health of the population in Pakistan. The use of biomass fuel as an energy source is the biggest contributor to poor indoor air quality followed by smoking. In order to arrest the increasing levels of indoor pollution, there is a dire need to recognize it as a major health hazard and formulate a national policy to combat it. An integrated effort, with involvement of all stakeholders, could yield promising results. A countrywide public awareness campaign, on the association of indoor air pollution with ill health, followed by practical intervention would be an appropriate approach. Due to the current socioeconomic conditions in the country, development and adoption of improved cooking stoves for the population at large would be the most suitable choice. However, the potential of biogas as a fuel should be explored further, and modern fuels (natural gas and LPG) need to be accessible and economical. Smoking in closed public spaces should be banned, and knowledge of the effect of smoking on indoor air quality needs to be quantified.