Cooking with Wood? Smoke Pollutants Could Make It Harder to Breathe


CT scans reveal impaired lung function in individuals who use biomass, such as wood or wildfires, to cook.

Cooking with wood or other biomass fuels can put people at greater risk for significant lung damage, and CT scans can reveal the impact pollutants and biotoxins make.

Results of a multidisciplinary study into the effect of cookstove pollutants, led by Eric A. Hoffman, Ph.D., University of Iowa radiology medicine, and biomedical engineering professor, will be presented during next week’s Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) annual meeting.

Although public health initiatives actively promote the use of cleaner-burning fuels, such as liquified petroleum gas, approximately 3 billion people worldwide still rely on biofuels, such as wood or dried brush, to cook. And, the pollutants produced by this type of cooking contribute to household air pollution-related illness, killing approximately 4 million people annually.

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Being able to assess the effects on the lungs is important, said study co-author Abhilash Kizhakke Puliyakote, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine. But, existing tests do not do an adequate job in evaluation.

“The extent of damage from biomass fuels is not really well captured by traditional tests,” he said. “You need more advanced, sensitive techniques like CT imaging. The key advantage to using imaging is that it’s so sensitive that you can detect subtle, regional changes before they progress to full blown disease, and you can follow disease progression over short periods of time.”

For their study, the team, which also included researchers from Periyar Maniammai Institute of Science and Technology, analyzed the impact of cookstove pollutants in 23 people who cooked with liquified petroleum gas or wood biomass in Thanjavur, India. After measuring the concentration of pollutants in their homes, the team tested their lung function using spirometry.

In addition, the team captured CT scans both when a participant inhaled and when he or she exhaled, measuring the difference between the images to determine lung function. Their analysis revealed that participants who cooked with wood biomass had greater concentrated exposures to pollutants and bacterial endotoxins than those who used petroleum liquified gas.

Wood biomass-burning study enrollees also faced an additional problem – they had significantly higher levels of air trapping in their lungs. This condition, associated with lung disease and often seen in tobacco smokers, occurs when part of the lungs cannot take in enough oxygen or expel carbon dioxide. In roughly one-third of the biomass users, 50 percent of the air they inhaled was ultimately trapped in their lungs, the team said.

According to Puliyakote, the lack of emphysema seen in this group points to a greater impact on the small airways of the lungs. Even without any obvious symptoms or breathing problems, he said, lungs can still experience injury and inflammation. Consequently, it is possible that many people can have undetected and unaddressed problems.

“For people exposed to biomass smoke for any extended duration, it is critical to have a complete assessment of lung function by healthcare professionals to ensure that any potential injury can be resolved with appropriate interventions,” he said.

In addition to offering insights into how biomass smoke from cooking acts on the lungs, this study’s findings can also add knowledge around the impact of the wildfires across the United States, as well.

For additional RSNA coverage, click here.

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