Research Profile: Kirk R. Smith

“We’ve put the problem of household air pollution on the map, and it is recognized as one of most important public health issues in the world.”



In the early 1980s, Kirk R. Smith PhD ’77, MPH ’72 was a newly minted professor initiating the first studies anywhere on indoor air pollution in the developing world. His research began with the documentation of indoor air pollution in villages from solid-fuel cookstoves, which burn fuel such as wood or coal, and the health impacts on those who use them. Today Smith is widely acknowledged as a world leader on household air pollution and its impacts on health and climate change. Smith, along with other researchers and graduate students, documented health and social impacts like chronic lung disease, and the dangers facing women during fuel collection trips. They also developed tools for measuring pollution levels and rating cookstoves to help identify designs that emit less pollution. 

Through the 1990s, as climate change assumed greater importance in the scientific world, Smith’s work grew to include documentation of cookstoves’ worldwide contribution to climate change.

Along the way, Smith and his colleagues developed the concept of “co-benefits,” the accepted term today for anti-pollution efforts that deliver both health and climate outcomes—a reduction in smoke from cookstoves, for example, improves health as it boosts overall outdoor air quality and reduces the impacts of climate change.

But despite his more than three decades in the field, Smith still itches to make more concrete improvements in his chosen field.

He cites the example of a woman in India, who was a subject in his first study, in 1981, of cookstoves and household air pollution. The woman was the first person in the world to wear a pollution monitor in her dwelling, while she cooked on a traditional cookstove. Smith keeps a photo of her—with the monitor around her waist—in his office.

Smith revisited the village last summer and looked the woman up. She remembered Smith and the study in which she had participated, and the two posed for photos together. But Smith saw the woman still cooking on the same pollution-spewing cookstove as when he met her 33 years ago.

“We’ve put the problem of household air pollution on the map, and it is recognized as one of most important public health issues in the world. It is sobering, however, that poor water and sanitation were recognized as a problem in the late 1800s, but still pose serious health risks in poor countries. We don’t want to be 120 years from now and have still not done anything about household air pollution,” says Smith. “At this point, I’m not so interested in finding yet another disease associated with it—the question is, what do we do about it that works?”

With that question in mind, Smith has been contributing to Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) reports for many years. The IPCC is the leading international body for the assessment of climate change, operating under the auspices of the United Nations. It does not conduct research or monitor climate change data, but focuses on review and assessment of the most recent scientific, technical, and socioeconomic information produced worldwide relevant to the understanding of climate change.

“It’s very complicated business, climate change,” says Smith. “The IPCC reports are the mother of all assessments; they are the most comprehensive review available anywhere. They are signed off on by 190 governments, ranging from Saudi Arabia to Cuba, with 800 scientists directly contributing—and that’s a remarkable achievement for humanity.”

Smith is a convening lead author for the health chapter of the IPCC’s Fifth Assessment Report, which was published in October 2014. In 2007, he was a contributing author to the Fourth Assessment Report of the IPCC. The IPCC shared that year’s Nobel Peace Prize with former Vice President Al Gore.

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