QnAs with Dr. Smith in PNAS

Nearly half of the world’s population relies on fuels such as wood or dung for cooking and heating. In the 1980s, Kirk R. Smith, a member of the National Academy of Sciences and a professor of global health at the University of California at Berkeley, sounded the alarm that these fuels, when burned in open fires or traditional cook stoves, produce high levels of indoor air pollution that prematurely kill about 2 million people each year—more than either malaria or tuberculosis, according to Smith. Cleaner alternatives to traditional cook stoves exist, but convincing funding agencies and decision makers to invest in these technologies requires substantive evidence of their health benefits, he says. Today, Smith—a 2012 recipient of the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement—develops inexpensive, portable electronic monitors to measure exposures to indoor air pollution in developing countries. Here, he explains how his research can aid the design and dissemination of solutions to tackle this ancient but still widespread problem.

Dr. Smith awarded 2012 Tyler Prize with Cal Tech's Dr. John Seinfeld

John Seinfeld, PhD, and Kirk R. Smith, MPH, PhD, recognized for their work to advance understanding of air pollution and its impact on the health of humans and the planet

Los Angeles, CA (March 20, 2012) – The Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement honors two experts on air pollution with the 2012 Tyler Prize for their work to advance the scientific understanding of air pollution, and develop solutions to reduce the danger to human health and the impact on climate change.

Kirk R. Smith, MPH, PhD, of the University of California at Berkeley is recognized for his work identifying that household air pollution in developing nations is responsible for nearly two million premature deaths per year, disproportionately among women and children. John H. Seinfeld, PhD, of the California Institute of Technology, is recognized for his groundbreaking work leading to understanding of the origin, chemistry, and evolution of particles in the atmosphere. The fundamental understanding of the physics and chemistry of urban and regional air pollution that emerged from his research served as the basis for action to control the effects of air pollution on public health.

Since its inception in 1973 as one of the world’s first international environmental awards, the Tyler Prize has been the premier award for environmental science, environmental health and energy, given to those who confer great benefit upon humankind through environmental restoration and achievement. The Tyler Prize is administered by the University of Southern California.

“The Tyler Prize is the highest recognition in the field of environmental science,” said Seinfeld. “It’s a humbling honor.”

Previous laureates include Edward O. Wilson, recognized for his early work on the theory of island biogeography; Jane Goodall, selected for her seminal studies on the behavior and ecology of chimpanzees and her impact on wildlife awareness and environmental conservation; Jared Diamond, a renowned author who gave birth to the discipline of conservation biology; and Thomas Lovejoy, a central figure in alerting the world to the critical problem of dwindling tropical forests.

“Professors Smith and Seinfeld are giants in the efforts to understand and reduce the devastating impacts of air pollution,” said Tyler Prize Executive Committee Chair Owen T. Lind, Professor of Biology at Baylor University. “Their respective research has dramatically advanced our understanding of the ways in which air pollution threatens our health as individuals and the health of the planet.” 

This year each Tyler Prize laureate will receive a $100,000 cash prize and a gold medal. The Prize honors exceptional foresight and dedication in the environmental sciences – qualities that mirror the prescience of the Prize’s founders, John and Alice Tyler, who established it while the environmental debate was still in its infancy. 

Woodsmoke from cooking fires linked to pneumonia, cognitive impacts

By Sarah Yang | Media Relationsscyang@berkeley.edu, (510) 643-7741

Berkeley - Two new studies led by University of California, Berkeley, researchers spotlight the human health effects of exposure to smoke from open fires and dirty cookstoves, the primary source of cooking and heating for 43 percent, or some 3 billion members, of the world's population. Women and young children in poverty are particularly vulnerable.

In the first study, the researchers found a dramatic one-third reduction in severe pneumonia diagnoses among children in homes with smoke-reducing chimneys on their cookstoves. The second study uncovered a surprising link between prenatal maternal exposure to woodsmoke and poorer performance in markers for IQ at ages 6 and 7.

The findings on pneumonia, the chief cause of death for children five and under, will be published in the journal The Lancet on Thursday, Nov. 10, two days before World Pneumonia Day. While previous research has linked exposure to household cooking smoke to respiratory infections, the latest results come from the first-ever randomized controlled trial - the gold standard of scientific experiments -  on air pollution.

"This study is critically important because it provides compelling evidence that reducing household woodsmoke exposure is likely a public health intervention that is on a par with vaccinations and nutrition supplements for reducing severe pneumonia, and is worth investing in," said Kirk Smith, professor of global environmental health at UC Berkeley's School of Public Health and principal investigator of the RESPIRE (Randomized Exposure Study of Pollution Indoors and Respiratory Effects) study.

"There is a huge burden of disease and death due to child pneumonia, and there aren't a lot of good interventions out there," added Dr. Arthur Reingold, a UC Berkeley professor of epidemiology and an internationally recognized expert on infectious diseases, who was not part of the RESPIRE trial. "Randomized controlled trials are frequently demanded by funding agencies and decision makers before they are willing to make substantial investments in new technologies or strategies, and this study provides the needed evidence of an intervention that works."

In the RESPIRE study - which includes partners from Guatemala's Universidad Del Valle, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, University of Liverpool, Norway's University of Bergen and the World Health Organization ñ researchers worked with rural communities in the Western Highlands of Guatemala. Households with a pregnant woman or young infant were randomly assigned to either receive a woodstove with a chimney or to continue cooking with traditional open woodfires.

The researchers found that using chimneys to vent cooking smoke outside homes led to a more striking decrease in cases of severe pneumonia compared with total pneumonia cases, possibly because the reduction in smoke with the chimney stoves was insufficient to significantly reduce all risk.

"The amount of smoke exposure babies were getting from the open woodfire stoves is comparable to having them smoke three to five cigarettes a day," said Smith, whose research in this field began 30 years ago. "The chimney stoves reduced that smoke exposure by half, on average."

In all there were 265 children in the chimney-stove homes and 253 children in the control homes. During the study, the researchers reported 149 children in the chimney-stove homes and 180 in the open-fire homes with physician-diagnosed pneumonia. For severe pneumonia, characterized by low blood oxygenation, there were 72 cases in the chimney-stove group and 101 in the control group.

In the second study, published online Sept. 24 in the journal NeuroToxicology, Smith led the research team that followed up with some of the families in the RESPIRE trial. That trial ended in 2005 when the infants were 18 months old. In 2010, the researchers recruited 39 mother-child pairs for the study, when the children were 6-7 years old.

The results found, for the first time, a link between exposure to woodsmoke ñ as determined by carbon monoxide levels measured individually ñ during the third trimester of pregnancy and lower performance on neurodevelopmental tests at ages 6 and 7. Specifically, the researchers found impairments in visuo-spatial perception and integration, visual-motor memory, and fine motor skills.

"I was surprised because woodsmoke was always considered a risk for respiratory health, but not IQ," said study lead author Linda Dix-Cooper, who conducted the study for her master's thesis in UC Berkeley's Global Health and Environment graduate program. "The implications of our findings are highly worrisome. Neurodevelopmental impacts have societal costs, such as impacts on an individual's future lifetime earnings and educational attainment."

Dix-Cooper added that similar cognitive impacts among children have been noted in previous case reports of childhood acute carbon monoxide poisonings and in epidemiological investigations of other prenatal air pollutant exposures in developed countries' urban centers. However, larger studies are needed to confirm the link with pollution from woodsmoke, she said.

The new studies come amid growing worldwide attention to the need for cleaner, more fuel-efficient cookstoves. Just last year, the United Nations Foundation launched the Global Alliance for Clean Cookstoves, an international public-private initiative championed by Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

In addition to the health consequences of burning wood, charcoal, dung or crop residue for cooking and heating, the alliance noted that use of traditional cookstoves increases pressures on local natural resources, contributes to climate change and puts women in danger when they forage for fuel in conflict zones.

Finding cleaner alternatives to traditional cookstoves has been an area of active research at UC Berkeley and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL) for decades. Some current projects are part of the UC Berkeley-based Blum Center for Developing Economies. They include one led by Smith to replace unhealthy coal stoves in rural China through carbon offsets, and another led by Daniel Kammen, Class of 1935 Distinguished Professor of Energy at UC Berkeley, to develop cost-effective methods to disseminate improved cook stoves throughout Tanzania.

"The biggest collection of people working in the area of cookstoves in the world is at UC Berkeley and LBNL," said Kammen, who co-authored a 2001 study in Kenya linking smoke from cookstoves and health problems that also appeared in The Lancet. "We are the center of this field in the academic community." Kammen just returned to campus from a one-year stint as the first clean-energy czar at the World Bank, one of the biggest sources of funding for cookstove projects and technology

Funding for The Lancet study was provided by the U.S. National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) and the World Health Organization. The NeuroToxicology study was supported by the Northern California Center for Occupational and Environmental Health, NIEHS and the Center for Environmental Research and Children's Health at UC Berkeley.

RELATED INFORMATION

CONTACTS Kirk Smith, Professor, krksmith@berkeley.edu, O: (510) 643-0793/9166, C: (510) 914-0620 (Smith will be out of town from Nov. 9-12, but will be available by cell and email during that time.)

Dr. Smith and Dr. Balakrishnan featured in ASPH Friday Letter

Prof. Smith interviewed in COEH Bridges

Prof. Smith's presents at Harvard Conference on Non-communicable Diseases among the Bottom Billion

Impact Carbon wins the 2011 Global Leadership Award from PCIA

We are delighted to announce that Impact Carbon received the 2011 Global Leadership Award from the Partnership for Clean Indoor Air (PCIA) at the 5th Biennial PCIA Forum in Peru earlier this month. This award, presented by the First Lady of Peru, recognizes Impact Carbon's success in improving health, livelihood, and quality of life through reduced exposure to indoor air pollution from household energy use. The award celebrates programs which have achieved excellence in the following areas: meeting social and behavioral needs, developing local markets, improving technology design and performance, and monitoring impacts.

As winners of this prestigious award, Impact Carbon's work will serve as a model of best practice for other programs striving to increase the use of clean, efficient, affordable, reliable and safe home cooking practices throughout the world.

Impact Carbon is a nonprofit organization with a mission to improve health, protect the environment and reduce poverty through clean energy projects. For the past nine years, we have worked with researchers and practitioners to bring innovative technologies such as clean-burning and efficient stoves to more than 735,000 people in developing countries. Impact Carbon?s projects are improving health, reducing fuel dependency within poor communities, and ensuring that climate change solutions generate sustainable livelihood opportunities at a local level.

Impact Carbon is internationally recognized as a leader in the field of energy solutions for health and development. In 2009 the organization won the Sustainable Products and Solutions Award, and was a finalist for the International Health Promotion Award in 2010.

Impact Carbon is implementing projects in China, Kenya and Uganda and is planning a number of expansion projects.

New Yorker Covers Guatemala Research

The New Yorker article on improved stoves ("Hearth Surgery" by Burchard Bilger, Dec 21, 2009, pp 84-97) covered our research in highland Guatemala. This is the 3-pg section of the long article that describes the writer's visit to the site.