How unclean energy takes a heavy toll on women’s reproductive health in Kenya.

Africa Science News

When Agnes Mutheu was expecting her third child, she was hopeful for a smooth delivery and a quick discharge, unfortunately she ended up staying in the hospital with her newborn child for three months.Mutheu 42 is a mother of three and has had a preterm delivery (birth before week 37) which was caused by breathing carbon monoxide while pregnant that came from her small food kiosk she was operating.This is an illness that occurs from breathing in carbon monoxide (CO) gas and is referred to as a medical emergency that requires treatment immediately, a reason she ended up in the hospital for three months.

“I ran a small food kiosk that many Kenyans call as ‘kibandask’ I usually use firewood to cook my food, when I went to deliver my third child, I didn’t know that the smoke from the firewood had affected my unborn child, “said Mutheu during an interview at her workplace. Having been working at her small hotel for close to 10 years, Mutheu did not know the dangers she was exposing herself to. According to Hope Okuthe, Project Officer Africa Energy Access and Transition, indoor air pollution remains a public health hazard where the use of biomass is common.“The use of inefficient cook stoves pollutes indoor air and a prolonged exposure can trigger health challenges like respiratory and eye diseases, in addition indoor air pollution affects women and children and can increase the risk of adverse birth outcomes,” said Okuthe.

“Where there is limited healthcare access, the pregnant mother may face challenges in accessing quality care during her pregnancy, ” adds Okuthe.She further adds that women’s health can be harmed by long term use of biomass fuels while cooking indoors. In cold areas, some may have a habit of closing windows and doors, a case that may worsen the situation.“Most of the people use biomass fuels (charcoal, wood, sawdust, agricultural waste) for cooking, lighting and heating, women, mostly the urban poor and those in rural areas are exposed to high levels of smoke for prolonged periods during food preparation,” said Okuthe.

According to Alaee, 2018, an increase in particulate matter (air pollutants) can significantly influence infertility rates.In many households, most cooking is done by women, and most of the time in poorly ventilated cooking areas characterized by deposits of soot on the walls or roofs according to Okuthe.“I am still using wood to prepare my meals despite the previous experience I had with my pregnancy but this is because I don’t have any alternative, I can not afford clean energy that can be able to cook my githeri (mixture of beans and maize) and fry chips,” adds Mutheu.During cooking, it is common to find women and their young children together in the kitchen.

According to behavior change and communication strategy for promoting clean cooking in Kenya (2022), cooking in Kenya is characterized by heavy reliance on solid biomass fuel estimated at 67%. Approximately 84% of the users are in the rural areas.Poverty and illiteracy are key barriers to households adopting clean fuel.The Ministry of Energy (2019) noted that the Kenyan Ministry of Health estimated that 21,500 premature deaths occur annually as a result of air pollution due to cooking.Women and girls in rural areas often carry loads of firewood on their back. This can cause long-term physical damage on their backbone, head, hands and legs from the strenuous work according to Okuthe.Global evidence suggests an association between indoor air pollution and increased pregnancy complications and preterm birth.

Air pollutants can contribute to stress, anxiety and depression leading to reduced quality of life according to Okuthe.Sammy Simiyu public health officer at Nairobi city County notes that when one inhales the pollutants like particulate matter (PM) 2.5, it goes through their nostril all the way to the lowest parts of the respiratory tract and it can access into the circulatory system.
By using unclean fuel which emits air pollutants that is PM 2.5, carbon monoxide and other fumes that are harmful to human health, exposure to these pollutants contributes to many other diseases not only respiratory. “When you look at the estimates of the country, 33 percent of stroke, diabetes, lung cancer, lower respiratory diseases and neonatal deaths are all associated with unclean energy,” reiterates Simiyu.

Dr George Mwaniki, Head of Air quality, World Resource Institute (WRI) Africa notes that most major cities in Kenya have recorded a significant deterioration of air quality due to different methods used in cooking. “In some cities such as Nairobi air quality has worsened by up to 150% since the 1960s,” said Mwaniki.Limited access to clean energy alternatives will result in the continued use of traditional, inefficient and polluting energy sources for cooking, heating and lighting and further exposing families to harmful indoor and outdoor air pollution.

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