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Portable ultrasounds to measure the health effects of pollution in developing countries

Dr. Sarada Garg takes measurements with a portable ultrasound machine at Washington University in St. Louis. A pregnant volunteer looks on.
Durrie Bouscaren | St. Louis Public Radio.
Dr. Sarada Garg takes measurements with a portable ultrasound machine at Washington University in St. Louis. A pregnant volunteer looks on.

Adly Castanaza, nurse from Jalapa, Guatemala, guides the probe of a portable ultrasound over the belly of a volunteer in St. Louis. It’s the same machine she’ll use back in Guatemala, to measure how pregnant women, their children and the elderly are affected by smoke from cook stoves.  

“I have seen, when I was in the hospital, so many people who come from rural communities that have [chronic obstructive pulmonary disease],” Castanza explained. “We have to know exactly if there’s a relation(ship with air pollution).”

Washington University in St. Louis is training health workers from India, Rwanda, Guatemala and Peru to conduct a massive study on how the smoke from traditional cook stoves affects women and children.

More than a third of the world’s population use open fires and stoves to cook and heat their homes, trapping smoke and particulate matter inside. The World Health Organization estimated in 2012 that 4.3 million premature deaths a year can be attributed to household air pollution, including half of pneumonia deaths among children less than five. Other health risks include heart disease, stroke and lung cancer.  

Three universities — Emory, Johns Hopkins and Colorado State — will lead the project, funded by a $30 million grant from the National Institutes of Health. In the four target countries, 800 pregnant women and 400 older women will receive propane cook stoves.

Researchers will collect data on fetal development, lung and heart function, as well as environmental data from inside their homes. When study participants give birth, their children will also be studied for their first two years of life. Researchers will create a control group by delaying the stove delivery for half of the study participants for two years, while still gathering data.

Dr. Sarada Garg, an OB-GYN from Chennai, India, also attended the training. She said her country’s government has tried to promote propane cook stoves to lower health risks, but it’s difficult to convince people to change the way they prepare food.

“Firewood ... and cow dung cakes — people have livestock — these are easily available,” Garg said. “They all take the connections, but to completely change is a little difficult.”

If the research proves a connection between cook stove smoke and respiratory issues, she said, it may be easier to make changes on a massive scale.

Follow Durrie on Twitter:@durrieB