Kirk R. Smith, who made India his second home, was instrumental in driving policy initiatives to combat indoor air pollution that affects women and children the most
Kirk R. Smith, an internationally renowned expert on the health and climate effects of household energy use in developing nations, and whose scientific research and advocacy informed widespread policy action, including in India, died in his California home on June 15. He was 73.
Smith was professor of global environmental health at University of California at Berkeley. He was awarded the Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement in 2012 for his work on climate, health and cookstoves. He was also one of the authors of the scientific reports prepared by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), which was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2007.
Smith had a special relationship with India, visiting the country often since the early 1980s to conduct research on indoor air pollution and provide expert advice to the government in designing many schemes that promoted the use of clean cookstoves and liquified petroleum gas (LPG) instead of more polluting biomass.
He was among the first who spread awareness among women, civil society organisations and government officials on the toxic effects of burning firewood and other biomass in indoor chulhas (cookstoves) that later led to major policy interventions in India and other developing nations.
Smith’s labours bore fruit when India in 2016 started a scheme — Pradhan Mantri Ujjwala Yojana (PMUY) — to distribute LPG to women living below the poverty line. The programme led to a 56% increase in LPG consumption in India in the five years to 2019. It initially aimed to benefit 50 million families, helping them to shift to a smoke-free kitchen environment.
By September 2019, some 80 million poor households had an LPG connection. Although a strong supporter of PMUY, Smith continued to push for better and wider implementation. “Connection, however, does not mean full usage and many new Ujjwala households and others continue to use significant amounts of biomass fuel, with consequent impacts on the health of village populations from the smoke,” he said in a policy brief in 2019. “While LPG subsidies are likely to be the most important factor determining usage, they will not be sufficient to push households towards abandoning solid fuels. Increasing awareness about the health impacts of smoke from chulhas should complement the other initiatives.”
Author of seminal research on indoor air pollution and its effect on health, Smith never rested on his laurels. The last research article he co-authored was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences journal on June 8, 2020.
In 1981, Smith identified the harm caused by smoke from the burning of fuels like wood or dung in homes in the developing world. For the past four decades, his research focused on measuring the damage it does to people’s health and on looking for solutions.
“The impact of household air pollution is on scale with any other major health risk in developing countries, including exposure to HIV, mosquitoes or dirty water,” Smith said in 2012 while receiving the Tyler Prize.
“Passionate and committed, Kirk made a huge difference through his research and teaching,” said Sunita Narain, director general of Centre for Science and Environment, an advocacy group. “He made the world aware of wicked problem of cookstoves.”
“We will keep his work alive as the best tribute we can imagine,” said Maria Neira, director at World Health Organisation.