BACKGROUND A critical review was conducted of the quantitative literature linking indoor air pollution from household use of biomass fuels with acute respiratory infections in young children, which is focused on, but not confined to, acute lower respiratory infection and pneumonia in children under two years in less developed countries. Biomass in the form of wood, crop residues, and animal dung is used in more than two fifths of the world's households as the principal fuel.
METHODS Medline and other electronic databases were used, but it was also necessary to secure literature from colleagues in less developed countries where not all publications are yet internationally indexed.
RESULTS The studies of indoor air pollution from household biomass fuels are reasonably consistent and, as a group, show a strong significant increase in risk for exposed young children compared with those living in households using cleaner fuels or being otherwise less exposed. Not all studies were able to adjust for confounders, but most of those that did so found that strong and significant risks remained.
CONCLUSIONS It seems that the relative risks are likely to be significant for the exposures considered here. Since acute lower respiratory infection is the chief cause of death in children in less developed countries, and exacts a larger burden of disease than any other disease category for the world population, even small additional risks due to such a ubiquitous exposure as air pollution have important public health implications. In the case of indoor air pollution in households using biomass fuels, the risks also seem to be fairly strong, presumably because of the high daily concentrations of pollutants found in such settings and the large amount of time young children spend with their mothers doing household cooking. Given the large vulnerable populations at risk, there is an urgent need to conduct randomised trials to increase confidence in the cause-effect relationship, to quantify the risk more precisely, to determine the degree of reduction in exposure required to significantly improve health, and to establish the effectiveness of interventions.
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We appreciate comments on early drafts by Sandy Gove, Antonio Pio, and Stephen Rogers and research assistance from Ruby H-D Nguyen. Isabelle Romieu's work on this paper was partly supported by the National Center for Environmental Health, Centers of Disease Control and Prevention, Atlanta, Georgia, USA.
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