Exposure to woodsmoke from cooking fires may add to pneumonia and affect the cognitive skills in children, two new studies have discovered.
The studies led by University of California, Berkeley researchers indicated that women and young children in poverty are particularly vulnerable to the health effects of smoke from open fires and dirty cookstoves, the primary source of cooking and heating for 43 percent of the world's population.
Pneumonia is the chief cause of death for children five and under.
In the first study, the researchers found a dramatic one-third reduction in severe pneumonia diagnoses among children in homes with smoke-reducing chimneys on their cookstoves.
The second study uncovered a surprising link between prenatal maternal exposure to woodsmoke and poorer performance in markers for IQ among school-aged children.
"This study is critically important because it provides compelling evidence that reducing household woodsmoke exposure is likely a public health intervention that is on a par with vaccinations and nutrition supplements for reducing severe pneumonia, and is worth investing in," said Kirk Smith, principal investigator of the study.
In the RESPIRE (Randomized Exposure Study of Pollution Indoors and Respiratory Effects) study, the researchers worked with rural communities in the Western Highlands of Guatemala.
"The amount of smoke exposure babies were getting from the open woodfire stoves is comparable to having them smoke three to five cigarettes a day," said Smith, professor of global environmental health at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health.
"The chimney stoves reduced that smoke exposure by half, on average," he added.
The results also found, for the first time, a link between exposure to woodsmoke - as determined by carbon monoxide levels measured individually - during the third trimester of pregnancy and lower performance on neurodevelopmental tests when the children were ages 6 and 7.
Specifically, the researchers found impairments in visuo-spatial perception and integration, visual-motor memory, and fine motor skills.
The findings on pneumonia were published in the journal Lancet.