Women in Science: Clean Air and Women’s Health

By Gina McCarthy

For Women’s History Month, I wouldn’t be doing my part if I didn’t get you to think a little about clean air and how important it is to women in the U.S. and all over the world.

We’ve made great progress in cleaning the air in this country over the past 40 years. In 2010 alone, the Clean Air Act prevented 160,000 premature deaths, 1.7 million cases of aggravated asthma and 16.2 million missed school and work days. But we have a long way to go before we can claim success – the stakes are just too high. Breathing dirty air means spending time at home caring for a sick child, spending too much money on medical bills, and spending too much time indoors when the ozone threat is high.

But, compared to other countries, we have a lot to celebrate. Did you know that almost half of the world’s population – mostly women – uses open fires or old and inefficient stoves to cook their meals? Many cook with their babies in a sling, on their backs or by their side, where both mother and baby breathe in the billowing smoke, causing pneumonia, chronic respiratory diseases, lung cancer and a range of other health problems – killing nearly 2 million people each year. That’s more than twice the number from malaria. And to make matters worse, too many women and children spend countless hours every day gathering wood or other fuel in conflict areas where they face unspeakable threats.

But this doesn’t need to be the case. Clean cookstoves can be produced at low cost today and EPA is helping to lead an international effort called the Partnership for Clean Indoor Air (PCIA), to get clean cookstoves into the hands of the women who need them. But PCIA does more than promote clean air, it helps grow local economies and empower women all across the world. Now, about 5 million stoves are being replaced every year and more than half are purchased by families from local entrepreneurs – many of whom are women.

Last year I was so proud to be in New York when two women – EPA Administrator Lisa Jackson and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – made history by launching the Global Cookstove Alliance. The Alliance brings $50M in funding from the US government to take this effort to the next level.

Safer, healthier and more efficient stoves don’t just save lives, they unlock the potential of women. And, as Madeline Albright once said, “There is a special place in hell for women who don’t help women,” so get busy and lend your voice and support to this effort!

Stay tuned to Greenversations throughout Women’s History Month and check out the White House website.

About the author: Gina McCarthy is the Assistant Administrator for EPA’s Office of Air and Radiation and is a leading advocate for comprehensive strategies to confront climate change and strengthen our green economy.

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