Interview with Dr. Helen Petach on the Impacts of Household Air Pollution

The Health Research Program interviewed Dr. Helen Petach, a Senior Science Advisor in the Office of Maternal, Child Health, and Nutrition at the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), about household air pollution and its connections to maternal and child health. Click here to read the brief disseminated on October 23rd at the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves’ sponsored “Clean Cooking Forum 2017.”

Photo courtesy of Dr. Helen Petach

How does household air pollution relate to maternal and child health?

Exposure to high levels of household air pollution affects mothers and children by increasing the risk of acute lower respiratory infections in children, low birthweight, and stillbirths. Recently, reductions in household air pollution have been shown to decrease the severity and duration of respiratory infections in children, and reduce blood pressure and inflammatory markers in pregnant women. Household air pollution is the second leading risk factor for premature death in low- and middle-income countries, so these improved health outcomes are relevant for large numbers of people, particularly mothers and children.

What is your background and how did you end up working on household air pollution?

My background is in chemistry (Ph.D., Cornell University) and developing innovative health diagnostics, and I find that understanding the science behind health topics provides an opportunity to consider new solutions. In household air pollution, technical issues such as measuring an individual’s exposure is necessary to identify changes that are likely to positively impact health. Identifying effective solutions is an important first step in public health.

 Tell us about your household air pollution work.

In USAID’s Bureau of Global Health, we initiated and continued to support programs to better understand the determinants of adoption for clean cooking. Analysis of the results from these adoption studies identified unique challenges facing households as they consider clean cooking. Recent health research shows how household air pollution impacts specific health outcomes; we will use these results to guide programs to measure and demonstrate improvements in child and newborn health, often essential to making policy changes.

How can the international development community tackle household air pollution?

Household air pollution requires a multi-sectoral discussion since it is dependent upon the available household energy sources, cooking devices, and cooking practices. For example, the transition from burning high emission biomass or kerosene to burning cleaner pellets requires pellet production facilities, pellet stoves, and a community interest in changing some cooking practices to accommodate a pellet stove. This multi-faceted solution requires coordination between the sectors as well as simultaneous investments in the sectors. The international development community can help by aligning the necessary policies and sectors to make investments more effective.

Tell us about the brief being presented at the 2017 Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves Conference.

The Clean Cooking Evidence Brief was created by USAID to bring together research results that link reductions in household air pollution with positive health impacts. These and future results are important since evidence-based health impacts are a significant driver for decisions about health investments and related policies. The Clean Cooking Forum is an opportunity to profile new and impactful results to an interested audience from a diverse set of geographies. As the evidence base for health continues to develop, next steps will be to work with communities to reduce household air pollution in ways that will both impact health and be adopted by households.