In a recent article in Environmental Health Perspectives, Charles W. Schmidt takes on the topic of artisanal brick kilns, a major source of pollution in developing countries. The article focuses largely on Latin America, where the Swiss-funded group EELA (that’s Eficiencia Energética en Ladrilleras Artesanales, which translates to Energy Efficiency in Artisanal Bricks) is working to “modernize artisanal brick making in Peru, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, Ecuador, Colombia, Nicaragua, Honduras, and Mexico.”

It takes a lot of heat to turn mud, clay, and other substances into bricks, so kilns are significant contributors to greenhouse-gas emissions. They also produce more localized pollution that can damage the health of brick workers and neighboring communities. Schmidt writes:

The few health studies of the sector that have been conducted link kiln work with respiratory disease and other problems such as musculoskeletal stress. One study, performed by investigators at Kathmandu Medical College, found that children living near brick kilns in Bhaktapur District, Nepal, were more likely to have upper respiratory infections, including tonsillitis and sore throat, than children living farther away from the kilns. Another study, by scientists at Aga Khan University in Karachi, Pakistan, reported high rates of chronic cough, phlegm, shortness of breath, wheezing, bronchitis, and asthma among both smoking and nonsmoking male brick workers. According to the authors, most of the findings were similar to health effects seen in workers in other smoky, dusty occupations.

… The sector’s air emissions are poorly characterized but may include sulfur oxides, nitrogen dioxide, carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide (CO2), forms of particulate matter (PM) including black carbon, and additional compounds released by the burning of coal and other fuels. … at a combined total of just over 1,000 metric tons, emissions of coarse particulate matter (PM10) from the Cusco [Peru] kilns rank second to vehicular emissions, which—given that Peruvian transportation is dominated by diesel trucks and vehicles operating without pollution controls—is the country’s largest source of PM by far. Particulate pollution is a major health hazard that increases the risk of cardiovascular and lung disease.

Particulate pollution from brick kilns is an even bigger concern in other parts of the world; in the season when bricks are produced, they account for 38% of the PM2.5 in Dhaka, Bangladesh. “Emissions of PM10 and PM2.5 (fine PM) from a cluster of roughly 530 kilns near the Bangladeshi capital of Dhaka are estimated to be responsible for 750 premature deaths from respiratory disease every year,” Schmidt reports. Cleaner kiln technologies could slash Bangladesh’s air-pollution-related death and disease rates in half.

Schmidt describes some of the more-efficient brick kilns in use in India and China; the “tunnel kiln” used by many producers in China, significantly reduces workers’ exposure to dust and heat. These more permanent kilns can run continuously, whereas artisinal kilns tend to make bricks in batches. Traditional kilns “in general they amount to little more than piles of bricks in different configurations, stacked to maximize internal airflow between them,” Schmidt explains. The low cost of constructing a simple enclosure — generally no more than $1,000 — is offset by high fuel requirements.

Investments in efficient kilns make financial sense in the long run, but few kiln opertors have the financial resources or other incentives to make the switch, and banks are often reluctant to offer the necessary loans. EELA is working to get vendors to offer fans that can improve efficiency for existing kilns, as well as a more-efficient kiln that recycles heat and can be built with local materials. The organization is also working to get local microfinancial institutions to make small loans at lowered rates to kiln producers making these upgrades. The World Bank is supporting new technologies and financing mechanisms for cleaner kilns in South Asia.

The push to reduce brick-kiln pollution has some similarities with the global effort to reduce indoor air pollution from traditional cookstoves. In both cases, the use of less-efficient methods contributes to climate change as well as harming the health of those who use and live near them.

In the case of cookstoves, promoters of cleaner stoves have found that it’s challenging to create alternatives that meet users’ needs, can be made locally, and can be maintained and used appropriately over time. Different models are necessary depending on locally available fuel sources, and the way the stoves cook local foods is important, too. Organizations have to find an appropriate price point and marketing strategies that resonate with their intended audiences.

I expect EELA, the World Bank, and others promoting cleaner, more efficient brick kilns and considering such questions. Success would be good for the health of brick workers as well as the planet.

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