Pitzer Professor Robert (Lee) Munroe Discovers Indoor Open-Fire Cooking May Affect Cognitive Development in Children

Michael Donahue/Pitzer College

Claremont, Calif. (June 14, 2012) —For millions of children in the developing world, open-fire cooking may be related to serious cognitive issues, according to a paper published by Pitzer College Research Professor of Anthropology Robert (Lee) Munroe and UC Riverside Professor of Psychology Mary Gauvain in the April issue of International Journal of Environmental Health Research.

Previous studies have documented the impact of toxic smoke on children’s physical health, but in their article, “Exposure to open-fire cooking and cognitive performance in children,” Munroe and Gauvain focus on mental development. They find that children routinely exposed to smoke from open fires struggle more than other kids to remember objects, recognize patterns, use building blocks and play in a structured way, such as following the rules of a game.

The article is based on data Munroe collected in the late 1970s in Belize, Kenya, Nepal and American Samoa.  Munroe’s original study focused on gender-role development but his research included extensive cognitive tests of children ranging in age from three to nine in villages in the four countries. Munroe and Gauvain discovered that younger children were more affected than older children by the toxins in smoke, and that cooking indoors over an open fire, versus a stove, was correlated with lowered cognitive performance.

"To have no stove at all is apparently even more dangerous than having a poor, smoke-leaking stove,” said Munroe, who described seeing Kenyan women, surrounded by their youngest children, cooking over open fires in tiny rooms with “walls blackened with carbon."

The physical and mental effects of open-fire cooking are a major concern across the globe. For the approximately three billion people who live in the developing world, traditional cook stoves and open fires are the primary means for cooking and heating, according to the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, an initiative dedicated to increasing safe cooking methods worldwide. An estimated two million people, mostly women and young children, die annually from steady exposure to smoke from open-fire methods of cooking.

Related Links:

International Journal of Environmental Health Research

Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves

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