Researcher connects indoor stoves with low birth weight in Guatemala

As a nurse practitioner in Oakland, Calif., in the 1990s, Lisa Thompson first observed a connection between air pollution from freeways and the development of asthma in children. Her observations have since been validated by new research that establishes the elevated risk of asthma for children living near freeways.

But after earning her Ph.D. in environmental health sciences at The University of California, Berkeley, Thompson set her scientific sights far south of Oakland: to the western highland regions of Guatemala.

Traveling with a research team from UCSF, she focused her scientific eye on the effects of indoor air pollution from biomass cooking and heating stoves that are ubiquitous in rural Guatemala and other developing countries.

The indoor stoves use wood, coal, animal dung and crop resides as fuel for heating and cooking. However, the resulting indoor levels of carbon monoxide and other pollutants is so great that the World Health Organization estimates as many as 1.6 million people worldwide die prematurely as a result of such stoves.

Thompson was determined to do something about the high infant mortality rate in western Guatemala. The team provided families with new stoves and chimneys that improved ventilation dramatically. Then, they installed carbon monoxide monitors and other equipment and studied the effect the cleaner air had on children from newborn to 18 months old.

Before long, they found a substantial reduction in chronic respiratory symptoms and correlated it to the reduction in indoor carbon monoxide at the homes where the new stoves were installed.

Thompson and her team observed a local custom that for the first three weeks of a baby’s life both mother and baby spent most of their time directly next to the heating/cooking stoves. She documented an increase in birth weight among children born into the homes where the new, cleaner woodstoves were placed.

Thompson continues to focus on air pollution and infant outcomes, traveling regularly to Guatemala. In support of their work, she and another UCSF professor are training birth attendants in Guatemala to measure birth weights consistently and focus on improving prenatal, intrapartum and postpartum care(see photo).; Photos courtesy of UCSF School of Nursing

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