Children who grow up in homes where coal is burned for heat are more likely to be shorter than kids whose houses are heated by other fuels, according to a new study. And previous research has found that shorter children are more likely to grow up with health problems.
The study included about 1,000 children in the Czech Republic. Czech and American researchers used medical records and questionnaires filled out by mothers to find out that, by age 3, children who grew up in coal-heated houses were about 1.3 centimeters shorter than those who lived in houses heated with other fuels.
Researcher Irva Hertz-Picciotto says that indicates that breathing the by-products of coal burning affects more than just the childrens’ lungs, as earlier studies had found.
"This is really extending that," she says. "This is more than just a respiratory problem. This is really an issue that the whole body is being affected. In some way, skeletal growth is also somehow having the impact of that exposure. And we don’t know the mechanism but we’re seeing it, we’re measuring it."
According to Hertz-Picciotto, the effect of living in a coal-heated house was similar to the impact of breathing cigarette smoke. "And in fact, if a child not only had coal smoke that they’d been breathing, but also second-hand tobacco smoke, we found that in fact there was an even stronger impact."
So the three-year-olds exposed to both coal and tobacco smoke were about two centimeters shorter than those exposed to neither.
Irva Hertz-Picciotto’s paper is published online by the Archives of Pediatric and Adolescent Medicine, a journal of the American Medical Association. In an editorial accompanying the research paper, Dr. Catherine Karr of the University of Washington in Seattle says the research, "underscores the importance of cleaner fuels and technologies for home heating and cooking throughout the world."