‪Open-Fire Cooking and Kids' Brains‬

Open fire cooking linked to lower cognitive performance in children

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Robert Carlson, M.D

(RxWiki News) There's nothing like a barbecue or roasting marshmallows over a campfire to bring a family closer. But too much exposure to open-flame cooking may affect a child's developing brain.

A recent study has found a link between being near open-fire cooking and problems with mental skills in children, including issues with memory, problem solving and social skills.

"Keep young children away from the smoke while cooking over a fire."

While the study was conducted with children who have regular exposure to cooking over an open flame in developing countries like Nepal and Kenya, the results may have implications for any child who spends a lot of time around open-fire cooking, such as barbecues with an open flame or frequent campfire cooking.

Mary Gauvain, a psychology professor at the University of California at Riverside, and Robert Munroe of Pitzer College co-authored a study that analyzed possible connections between open-flame cooking and cognitive problems in children.

The authors noted past research that has linked carbon monoxide and other toxins found in the smoke from cooking fires to problems with children's immune systems and a higher risk of respiratory conditions like pneumonia.

Past research also found associations between these smoke toxins and changes to the lungs, brain and other organs in children aged 3 and younger.

These findings led Gauvain and Munroe to look at some of their own data from previous studies and to analyze it in a new way.

The data they used was not recent. It came from their 1970s study of about 200 children, aged 3 to 9 years old, in traditional communities in Kenya, Belize, Nepal and American Samoa.

The two communities they studied from Kenya and Nepal regularly used indoor open-fire cooking with wood, dung or straw while the American Samoa communities used kerosene stoves.

The families they studied in Belize fell into three roughly equal groups: those who only cooked on open fires with wood, those who only used kerosene stoves for cooking, and those who used both.

Gauvain and Munroe then looked at the data from several cognitive tests and activities they had done with the children, including block building, memory skills and recognizing patterns.

They recorded observations regarding structured play, such as playing a rules-based game (games like Simon Says or Hide and Seek) or making an object or toy.

The geographic variety gave Gauvain and Munroe enough data to compare across communities, though they could not control for all the other possible factors that may influence the children's cognitive development.

They adjusted their calculations for the children's ages, educational levels and socioeconomic status.

They found that children from families that cooked over an open flame tended to have less structured play and had lower performance on the cognitive tests than children whose families cooked on kerosene stoves - regardless of the child's culture.

The strongest association between the fire cooking and lower cognitive performance was among the youngest children, who spent more time in the home during cooking.

This "suggests that these deleterious effects may subside as the brain matures or as children spend less time in the presence of open-fire cooking," Gauvain and Munroe wrote, pointing out that the link may go away as the children grow up.

The study found only a link between open-flame cooking and lower cognitive performance, so there is no evidence that the open-fire cooking caused brain or thinking problems.

The fires used for cooking were indoors, where less ventilation occurs, so the connection may be different or nonexistent for outdoor fires where the smoke can dissipate quickly.

The study appeared in the April issue of the International Journal of Environmental Health Research. The field work that provided the data was funded by a National Science Foundation grant. No financial disclosures were noted.

Reviewed by: 
Review Date: 
June 3, 2012
Last Updated:
October 1, 2012