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A brief biography
Kirk Smith, the eminent University of Berkeley professor who passed away on June 15, began his research career in the 1970s with a PhD thesis on the health impact of nuclear power. By the late-1980s, however, he had switched focus to the effect of a much more humble energy source: the smokeemitting “chulha”, or wood, dung and coal stove, of rural India and other developing countries. When people asked him why he’d stopped work on nuclear power, he’d reply, “The risks are too small.” Air pollution has been an issue since at least the industrial revolution but it was mostly seen as a problem of smokestacks and later vehicles. It was Smith’s pioneering research and relentless advocacy that helped put household air pollution on the global health map, influenced generations of researchers, and shaped policy in India and globally. “Kirk’s work in household air pollution, its impact on the most disadvantaged of our society, defined the field,” says Ambuj Sagar, a professor at IIT Delhi who worked with him closely.
Smith’s work, in collaboration with researchers in 20 countries, demonstrated that some of the highest exposures to air pollutants occur in rural, indoor settings and highlighted the associated risks of pneumonia, heart disease, and TB for poor women and children. Or, as he said, “The worst thing you can do for your health is stick burning stuff in your mouth. The second worst thing you can do is burn stuff in your kitchen.”
Smith shaped public policy in India as well, a country he had been visiting frequently since the 1980s. A distinguished visiting scholar at IIT Delhi, he was an adviser on the 2009 National Programme on Improved Cookstove as well as on the Union health ministry’s 2014 report on air pollution. That report corrected a historical focus on urban air pollution and highlighted pollution from village chulhas as “probably the single largest source” of individual exposure and the source of a quarter of ambient PM 2.5 levels in the country.
Smith was also a vocal supporter of India’s Ujjwala programme to bring LPG to the rural poor, which launched in 2016. His advocacy for a fossil fuel ran counter to the Western climate agenda on renewable energy that promoted advanced biomass stoves as a solution. After many studies found such stoves did not lower pollution as much as hoped, Smith began to argue that the poor should have the same energy options as urban Indians. “Kirk never lost sight of the fact that this is a problem of poor people, especially women and children, and that the solutions have to work for them,” said Sagar.
Indeed, Smith’s involvement in testing out solutions in villages in India, Nepal, Guatemala, and elsewhere was in some ways remarkable for a scientist. “He wasn’t happy just pointing out the problem,” said Sagar, “He wanted to figure out how to solve it.”
Smith was professor of global environmental health at Berkeley, director of the Collaborative Clean Air Policy Centre in New Delhi, and a member of numerous international scientific advisory committees including the executive committee of the World Health Organisation’s Air Quality Guidelines.