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Dr. Mary Gauvain, University of California Riverside – Cooking Smoke and Cognitive Development

In today’s Academic Minute, Dr. Mary Gauvain of the University of California Riverside explains how exposure to cooking fire smoke in the developing world can impair cognitive development in children.

Mary Gauvain is a professor of psychology at the University of California Riverside. Her research is focused on understanding how social and cultural processes contribute to children's acquisition, organization, and use of cognitive skills. Her work has been widely published in peer-reviewed journals and she holds a Ph.D. from the University of Utah.

About Dr. Gauvain

Dr. Mary Gauvain – Cooking Smoke and Cognitive Development

A leading cause of death of young children worldwide is respiratory disease, in particular pneumonia. These deaths are not randomly dispersed around the planet, however. They are concentrated in poorer and developing regions of the world, and many of them result from exposure to harmful substances in the smoke of open fires used for cooking and heating.

This topic came to the attention of my collaborator, Lee Munroe, and I in 2009, when we read an article in the New Yorker by Burkhard Bilger, a staff writer for the magazine. Bilder’s article focused on efforts by scientists to develop cleaner and cheaper kerosene stoves that, if used by people around the world, would lower the risk to children of this toxic exposure. As a developmental psychologist who specializes in children’s cognition, I was especially interested in damage that may occur to mental or intellectual functioning.

As it happens, Lee Munroe, who is an anthropologist, and his late wife Ruth, who was a developmental psychologist, had spent many years studying child development around the world. In the late 1970s they collected data on children 3- to 9-years of age in four traditional communities: Samoans in American Samoa, Garifuna in Belize, Newars in Nepal, and Logoli in Kenya. In 2009, Lee and I had just completed an analysis of these data focused on children’s cognitive development and Lee recalled that the communities varied in the extent to which they relied on open fire cooking versus kerosene stoves. Open-fire cooking was used exclusively in the Nepalese and Kenyan communities, kerosene stoves were used in American Samoa, and there was a mixture of these two cooking modes among the Garifuna in Belize.

We examined the relation between exposure to open-fire cooking and children’s performance on several cognitive tasks such as block-building, short-term memory, and discernment of embedded figures, as well as the amount of structured play, which is important avenue for learning from other people. We found significant relations between this exposure and lower cognitive performance and less structured play, and the relations were stronger among younger children. Although we did not measure the exact amount of exposure or the chemical composition of the home cooking area, techniques that are common in current research, our results are consistent with contemporary findings. They suggest that exposure to open-fire cooking not only imperils children’s physical development, it also jeopardizes their intellectual development – a situation that has long-term risk to the children and communities where open-fire cooking is a daily feature of life. 

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