Grill warning: Cooking with wood may cause lung damage, study shows

OAK BROOK, Ill. — S’more lovers won’t be thrilled about it, but a new study finds cooking food with wood may be a recipe for lung damage. Researchers say people who cook with biomass fuels like wood are exposing themselves to a number of adverse pollutants and bacterial toxins, consequently raising their risk of lung damage considerably. These conclusions were reached via advanced CT scans.

Cooking with wood or dried bushes is incredibly common on a global scale. It’s estimated that roughly three billion people prepare their meals this way on a daily basis. Importantly, cooking-related biomass pollutants are also considered a major contributor to the roughly four million deaths per year attributed to household air pollution-related illnesses.

There have been many initiatives over the years that tried to encourage a transition from biomass fuels to safer liquefied petroleum gas as a fuel source for cooking, but many people still use wood. As far as why that’s the case, researchers list financial difficulties, a lack of understanding regarding the health risks, and plain-old stubbornness.

“It is important to detect, understand and reverse the early alterations that develop in response to chronic exposures to biomass fuel emissions,” says study co-author Abhilash Kizhakke Puliyakote, Ph.D., a postdoctoral researcher from the University of California San Diego School of Medicine, in a release.

CT scans show cooking with wood traps more air in the lungs

For this research, an international group of researchers analyzed the effect of cookstove pollutants among 23 people cooking with either liquefied petroleum gas or wood biomass in Thanjavur, India. Each participant’s home was assessed to determine the level of pollutants present, and then everyone’s lung functioning was analyzed. Additionally, advanced CT scans are used to collect quantitative data. For example, each person received two CT scans; one while inhaling and then another while exhaling. This allowed researchers to compare the two readings and identify any differences in lung function.

Sure enough, these processes revealed that individuals who cook with biomass fuels are exposed to more pollutants and bacterial endotoxins than those who use liquefied petroleum gas. Wood-using subjects showed higher levels of air stuck in their lungs.

“Air trapping happens when a part of the lung is unable to efficiently exchange air with the environment, so the next time you breathe in, you’re not getting enough oxygen into that region and eliminating carbon dioxide,” Dr. Kizhakke Puliyakote says. “That part of the lung has impaired gas exchange.”

A portion of the wood-cooking participants displayed particularly poor lung functioning, with some even retaining over 50% of the air they inhale. “This increased sensitivity in a subgroup is also seen in other studies on tobacco smokers, and there may be a genetic basis that predisposes some individuals to be more susceptible to their environment,” Dr. Puliyakote explains.

The research team says using CT scans made all the difference regarding the accuracy of their findings.

“The extent of damage from biomass fuels is not really well captured by traditional tests,” Dr. Puliyakote comments. “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.”

Exposure to smoke, in general, makes lung function worse

It was somewhat curious that none of the participants showed any signs of emphysema. With this in mind researchers theorize biomass smoke may be affecting the small airways of the lungs.

In summation, study authors say it’s important for everyone to minimize their exposure to smoke.

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

Beyond just matters of the kitchen, these findings are also relevant for all types of smoke exposure.

“In conjunction with the increasing prevalence of biomass smoke due to wildfires in the U.S., this study can provide valuable insights regarding similar study designs serving to understand what is certain to be a growing assault on lung health,” Dr. Puliyakote concludes.

This research is set to be presented at the annual meeting of the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA).