Dr. Peggy Lai learned a very valuable lesson when she began the preliminary work for her study on indoor air pollution in Uganda: listen to the research participants.

Through the Awards & Grants Program, the American Lung Association awarded Dr. Lai a research grant to  study how indoor microbes in rural Uganda change after the introduction of chickens, and how that can affect lung health. She also wanted to look at air pollutants in cooking spaces while she was measuring the indoor air quality. According to the World Health Organization, women who are exposed to high levels of indoor smoke (e.g., from cooking with wood or coal over an open flame) are twice as likely to develop chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) compared to women who cook with cleaner fuels.

For her research, Dr. Lai spoke with residents of the Ugandan village, and they told her to also consider the pollution caused by lighting sources.


In Mbarara where the study was conducted, there is limited electricity, and most families rely on other ways to power their lighting, including solar panels and kerosene-powered lamps (hurricane lamps and open wick lamps). To test the pollution caused by both cooking and lighting sources, Dr. Lai and her team measured particle pollution in outdoor cooking areas, indoor cooking areas (usually separated from the main home) and the indoor living areas. They recorded the pollution levels in these three areas during two different periods over a year.

"When I later went to the field during that visit, I realized that in rural Uganda pretty much everyone cooks outside of their main home," Dr. Lai said. "Even the poorest prefer to cook outdoors if they can't afford a separate kitchen. But lighting choice was not uniform and was dictated by socioeconomic status."

As predicted, the study showed that air pollution levels in the indoor cooking areas were incredibly high, sometimes 10 times more than the World Health Organization's recommended levels. Quite surprisingly, in homes that used kerosene lamps, the indoor pollution levels were also above recommended amounts. In homes using solar panels as their main lighting source, pollution levels met recommended standards.

"Our study did not specifically look at health effects since it requires a different study design, which is why we are now applying for funding to study the health effects of this exposure," Dr. Lai said. "Since kerosene is similar in composition to jet fuel, it is reasonable to believe that breathing in kerosene combustion byproducts is bad for your lungs."

Dr. Lai and her research team are compiling and analyzing the data with microbes from their primary study and plan to release those results at a later time.

This article originally appeared in the American Lung Association’s Advancing Research magazine.

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