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Kimberly Black / Gavel Media

Intersection of Poverty, Environment, and Health

On Thursday April 7, Dean of Boston College School of Social Work Gautam N. Yadama joined students to discuss the intersectionality between poverty and environmental dynamics as well as interventions to address the subsequent social, environmental, economic, and health outcomes. 

In his book Fires, Fuel, & the Fate of 3 Billion: State of the Energy Impoverished, Yadama outlines his approach to interdisciplinary research. He argues that research must focus on the complex interplay between household air pollution and poverty, environment, and health. 

Yadama, a member of the Implementation Science Network on Clean Cooking at the Fogarty Institute of the National Institutes of Health, concentrates on how interventions to reduce household air pollution in rural India are adopted and sustained by poor communities; his work focuses on community based dynamics and social network analysis.

In his examination of the sustainability of new energy technologies that reduce household air pollution, Yadama has implemented a randomized control trial in order to improve the overall health and wellbeing of women and children in rural India.

In his conversation with BC students, Yamada focused on the impact of household pollution on individual people and how this in turn impacts communities at large. 

Yadama described the impact of household air pollution in terms of disability adjusted life years, which is a metric that describes the measure of overall burden of disease. This is then expressed as the total number of years lost due to poor health, disability, and premature death. 

Globally, due to the impact of air pollution, there are 81,039,363 disability adjusted life years. Particularly, in South Asia and sub-Saharan Africa, millions of people experience unhealthy lifestyles due to exposure. This contributes to large, irreversible, and tragic consequences for people, their productivity, and their environments. 

Yadama utilized fire to exemplify his argument. Fire, he states, is necessary for cooking: if there is no cooking, there is no eating. However, the use of coal and wood to ignite these fires has consequences for the environment, as a staggering 730 million tons of biomass are burned in an aggregate of 1 billion tons of carbon dioxide which is released into the atmosphere. Moreover, smoke from rudimentary fires kills 4 million people a year. 

Yadama asserted that this is all connected to energy poverty and offered his analysis of solutions to the problem. Primarily, he stressed the importance of directly engaging communities to determine suitable health equity outcomes. 

Yadama concluded his talk by arguing that solutions shouldn’t be designed in engineering labs, but rather redesigned upon completion of this immersive process. He stated that communities themselves are able to dictate what solutions are practical for them, and that solutions should be developed and modeled from this input. 

“We don’t need to feel sorry for them,” he concluded, “but we need to focus our attention on how to address their communities to see what are the solutions that work for them.”

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