Kirk R. Smith, scientist who warned of health hazards of open-fire cooking especially in underdeveloped countries, dies at 73

Kirk R. Smith, environmental scientist who discovered that air pollution from wood stoves was one of the most dangerous to health. Photo: kirkrsmith.org

Kirk R. Smith, an environmental scientist who traced air pollution to the hearth, finding that one of the greatest international health dangers comes from cooking over open fires in underdeveloped countries, died June 15 at his home in Berkeley, Calif. He was 73.

The cause was a stroke, according to a statement from the University of California at Berkeley’s School of Public Health, where Smith was a professor.

In the 1980s, when many people assumed that the worst forms of air pollution derived from automobiles and factory smokestacks, Smith began looking at the problem from the ground up. From his travels throughout Asia and Central America, he noticed that air pollution starts at home – specifically, in the kitchen.

He abandoned his earlier study of the risk of accidents from nuclear power plants to study a more widespread environmental hazard: smoke from solid fuels – typically wood, charcoal, coal or dung. It is a cooking method still practiced in 40 percent 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.

“He is literally the most important person in the world in what we call household air pollution,” John Balmes, a colleague at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health, said in an interview. “He saved more lives than anyone I know. What he taught me is that the developed world spends billions on cleaning the air from auto emissions and power plants, when more lives are lost in low- and middle-income countries from cooking with solid fuels.”

In his first studies, Smith took industrial hygiene equipment – used to measure pollutants in workplaces – into houses around the world. The results were shocking.

“I’d go to an air-pollution conference and show them my measurements,” he told the New Yorker magazine in 2009, “and they’d say, ‘Good Lord, these are orders of magnitude higher than in our cities! And these are the most vulnerable populations in the world.’ ”

In India, where millions of people still cook their food using dried manure as a fuel, household smoke is the largest source of air pollution.

“We’ve realized that pollution may start in the kitchen, but it doesn’t stay there,” Dr. Smith said in 2019. “It goes outside, it goes next door, it goes down the street and it becomes part of the general outdoor air pollution.”

In San Lorenzo, Guatemala, where Dr. Smith traveled once a month for several years while conducting long-term studies, he introduced stoves with chimneys, then observed the different results, compared with open-hearth cooking.

“The houses were low-ceilinged and bare, with earthen floors, corrugated roofs, and a tree stump or two for furniture,” New Yorker journalist Burkhard Bilger wrote in 2009. “But in most of the houses with stoves at least the air was clear. In those with open fires it hung so thick and noxious that the walls were blackened, the joists and beams shaggy with creosote.”

The World Health Organization estimates that 4 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 a thousand burning cigarettes per hour,” Smith said.

In addition to providing more efficient stoves to people in remote areas, Smith helped set up medical clinics and worked with local governments to provide clean fuel and other services. In recent years, he gave up part of his teaching salary to spend the fall semester in India, where he worked with government officials to introduce liquid propane gas as a substitute for dried dung as a cooking fuel.

“This is a kind of a forgotten population,” Smith said. “The poor women in rural areas of developing countries are about as low on the totem pole, globally, as you can get. They don’t have anybody speaking for them.”

Smith was born Kirk Robert Nisbet on Jan. 19, 1947, in Berkeley. His parents divorced when he was a child, and he took the last name of his mother’s second husband, an engineer. His mother once worked as a researcher for psychologist Timothy Leary before Leary began his experiments with LSD.

Smith 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.

He worked for almost two decades as a researcher in Honolulu at the East-West Center, a quasi-governmental organization that promotes improved understanding between the United States and Asia. During his extensive travels, Smith decided to switch his research interest from nuclear energy to household air pollution, using a phrase he often recommended to his students: “Follow the risk.”

He lived in Nepal and India for extended periods before joining the faculty of UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health in 1995. He was elected to the National Academy of Sciences in 1997 and in 2012 received the $100,000 the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, presented by the University of Southern California. Smith was among several hundred scientists of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change who shared the 2007 Nobel Peace Prize with former vice president Al Gore.

Survivors include his wife of 43 years, Joan Diamond of Berkeley; a daughter; and two grandchildren.

Smith was considered a charismatic figure by students and colleagues around the globe.

“He didn’t do science for science’s sake,” said Balmes, his Berkeley colleague. “He did it to make a difference. He really was trying to save the world.”

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