Household air pollution from use of solid fuels (biomass fuels and coal) is a major problem in low and middle income countries, where 90% of the population relies on these fuels as the primary source of domestic energy. Use of solid fuels has multiple impacts, on individuals and households, and on the local and global environment. For individuals, the impact on health can be considerable, as household air pollution from solid fuel use has been associated with acute lower respiratory infections, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, lung cancer, and other illnesses. Household-level impacts include the work, time, and high opportunity costs involved in biomass fuel collection and processing. Harvesting and burning biomass fuels affects local environments by contributing to deforestation and outdoor air pollution. At a global level, inefficient burning of solid fuels contributes to climate change. Improved biomass cookstoves have for a long time been considered the most feasible immediate intervention in resource-poor settings. Their ability to reduce exposure to household air pollution to levels that meet health standards is however questionable. In addition, adoption of improved cookstoves has been low, and there is limited evidence on how the barriers to adoption and use can be overcome. However, the issue of household air pollution in low and middle income countries has gained considerable attention in recent years, with a range of international initiatives in place to address it. These initiatives could enable a transition from biomass to cleaner fuels, but such a transition also requires an enabling policy environment, especially at the national level, and new modes of financing technology delivery. More research is also needed to guide policy and interventions, especially on exposure-response relationships with various health outcomes and on how to overcome poverty and other barriers to wide-scale transition from biomass fuels to cleaner forms of energy.
Caroline A. Ochieng, Cathryn Tonne, Sotiris Vardoulakis, and Jan Semenza
Paolo Vineis and Federica Russo
While genomics has been founded on accurate tools that lead to a limited amount of classification error, exposure assessment in epidemiology is often affected by large error. The “environment” is in fact a complex construct that encompasses chemical exposures (e.g., to carcinogens); biological agents (viruses, or the “microbiome”); and social relationships. The “exposome” concept was then put forward to stress the relatively poor development of appropriate tools for exposure assessment when applied to the study of disease etiology. Three layers of the exposome have been proposed: “general external” (including social capital, stress and psychology); “specific external” (including chemicals, viruses, radiation, etc.); and “internal” (including for example metabolism and gut microflora). In addition, there are at least three properties of the exposome: (a) it is based on a refinement of tools to measure exposures (including internal measurements in the body); (b) it involves a broad definition of “exposure” or environment, including overarching concepts at a societal level; and (c) it involves a temporal component (i.e., exposure is analyzed in a life-course perspective). The conceptual and practical challenge is how the different layers (i.e., general, specific external, and internal) connect to each other in a causally meaningful sequence. The relevance of this question pertains to the translation of science into policy—for example, if experiences in early life impact on the adult risk of disease, and on the quality of aging, how is distant action to be incorporated in biological causal models and into policy interventions? A useful causal theory to address scientific and policy question about exposure is based on the concept of information transmission. Such a theory can explain how to connect the different layers of the exposome in a life-course temporal frame and helps identify the best level for intervention (molecular, individual, or population level). In this context epigenetics plays a key role, partly because it explains the long-distance persistence of epigenetic changes via the concept of “epigenetic memory.”