Researcher shed light on open-fire cooking risk
Kirk Smith, an environmental scientist who traced air pollution to the hearth, died June 15 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 73.
The cause was a stroke, according to the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health, where Smith was a professor.
In the 1980s, when many people assumed the worst air pollution derived from cars and factories, Smith began using a phrase he often recommended to his students: “Follow the risk.” From his travels throughout Asia and Central America, he noticed that air pollution starts at home — in the kitchen.
He began to study the hazard of smoke from solid fuels — typically wood, charcoal, coal or dung. It is a cooking method still practised in 40 per cent of the world’s households.
From Nepal, China and India to Guatemala, Mexico and Paraguay, Smith launched dozens of scientific studies showing that smoke from kitchen fires constitutes the world’s greatest environmental risk, second only to contaminated water. Practically on his own, he made household air pollution a new field of environmental study.
Early on, Smith took industrial hygiene equipment — used to measure pollutants in workplaces — into houses around the world. The results were shocking, in orders of magnitude higher than in cities.
In India, where millions cook using dried manure as fuel, household smoke is the largest source of air pollution.
In Guatemala, he introduced stoves with chimneys, then observed the results compared with open-hearth cooking.
The World Health Organization estimates that four million people die each year from pneumonia and other diseases caused by household air pollution.
Women and young children, often carried on their mother’s backs, are at greatest risk from the toxic emissions.
“Indoor fires are like being around 1,000 burning cigarettes per hour,” Smith said.
He helped set up medical clinics and worked with local governments to provide clean fuel such as propane.
Smith was born Jan. 19, 1947, in Berkeley. He received a bachelor’s degree in physics and astronomy in 1968, a master’s degree in environmental health sciences in 1972 and a doctorate in biomedical and environmental health in 1977, all from UC Berkeley.
Kirk R. Smith