Re­searcher shed light on open-fire cook­ing risk

Calgary Herald - - NAVIGATOR - The Wash­ing­ton Post

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

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