Estimating the Number of Low-Income Americans Exposed to Household Air Pollution From Burning Solid Fuels

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Background: Exposure to household air pollution (HAP) from inefficient biomass and coal stoves kills nearly 4 million people every year worldwide. HAP is an environmental risk associated with poverty that affects an estimated 3 billion people mostly in low- and middle-income countries. Objectives: Our goal was to estimate the number of low-income Americans exposed to potentially health-damaging concentrations of HAP. Methods: We mapped county-level data for the percentage of households using wood, coal, and/or coke as their primary heating fuel along with percent of the population below the federal poverty level. Using U.S. Census data and the likelihood of fugitive emissions as reported in the literature, we estimated the number of low-income Americans potentially exposed to HAP. Results: Solid fuel is the primary heating source for > 2.5 million U.S. households, or 6.5 million people. The mapping exercise showed several rural areas, primarily in the northern and western regions, that have high levels of solid-fuel use and poverty. We then identified 117 counties with high co-incident poverty and solid-fuel use as high-priority counties for research into potential health risks from HAP. We estimate that between 500,000 and 600,000 low-income people in the United States are likely exposed to HAP from burning solid fuels within their homes. Conclusion: HAP occurs within the United States and should be further investigated for adverse health risks, especially among those living in areas with rural poverty.