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Research Claims Open Fires Stunt Physical Development

By Laura Elahi on February 9, 2011

Just days after a Danish professor suggested that wood-burning stoves can cause heart disease and respiratory illness, a team of scientists from the Czech Republic has claimed that open coal fires can stunt the growth of children.

Published in the Archives of Paediatrics & Adolescent Medicine, the study analysed 1,133 children to conclude – after excluding various factors – that youngsters brought up in homes heated by open coal fires were, on average, 1.3 cm shorter by the age of three than those exposed to wood fires, electric heaters and gas central heating.

Although the study raises interesting questions about the safety of open coal fires from the perspective of human growth and development, it ought to be noted that children grow at vastly different rates and times; for instance, a child who is two cm shorter than another at three years of age may be several inches taller by adulthood.

To conclude that open coal fires stunt growth after an analysis of just 1,133 individuals over a very limited period of time might seem a stretch too far for many people, especially those who realise that it is almost impossible to accurately account for all environmental and genetic factors that could influence human growth over 36 months.

Nevertheless, the study does highlight the potential dangers of polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, which are toxic chemicals released with the burning of fossil fuels such as coal.

Professor Irva Hertz-Picciotto said: “While the difference in height is not large, it does indicate that exposure to dirty fuel sources has an influence on basic processes associated with growth.”

The scientist added: “The negative impact of indoor air pollution from coal may extend beyond the respiratory system of children and indicate possible systemic affects. Coal smoke contains, among other types of chemicals, polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), which may influence the production or activity of certain growth factors. Slower growth, particularly in early life, often is an indicator of poorer health or greater disease susceptibility. PAHs also are present in direct or second-hand tobacco smoke, emissions from the tailpipes of motor vehicles and smoke from most fires.”