Pioneering researcher at forefront of efforts to address household air pollution

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Written by Anuradha Mascarenhas | Pune | Published: June 21, 2020 5:23:16 am

Prof Kirk Smith, Prof Kirk Smith death, KEM hospital, Prof Kirk Smith research on indoor pollution, indoor pollution, icmr, indian express news Dr Kirk Smith at SRIHER — Household Air Pollution Intervention Network trial site at Kallakurichi, Tamil Nadu.

At KEM hospital and research centre’s Vadu Rural Health Programme, Director Dr Sanjay Juvekar cannot believe 73-year-old Prof Kirk Smith — a pioneering researcher in the deadly risks of indoor air pollution — is no more. “India was his second home. Such was his passion for work that he would not rest a minute and upon arriving in Pune would travel another 120 km to Junnar to check on measures that would help rural women give up traditional cooking methods and exposure to smoke,” Dr Juvekar said.

Smith was a professor of global KEM hospital environmental health at UC Berkeley’s School of Public Health and Director of the Collaborative Clean Air Policy Centre in New Delhi. He passed away on June 15 at his Berkeley home following a stroke and cardiac arrest. For more than 40 years, Dr Smith was at the forefront of efforts to understand the causes and reach of air pollution — more so household air pollution — and led various studies across the world to address it.

“We worked together for five years on the project involving pregnant women across villages around Junnar tehsil in Pune district and studied measures through which LPG use could be enhanced in rural households,” Dr Juvekar told The Indian Express. Fuelled by wood, coal or dung, these traditional cookstoves produce smoke, which, according to the World Health Organisation, contributes to an estimated 4.3 million deaths from exposure to household air pollution.

In the 1980s, there were few studies on the health effects of indoor air pollution from cookstoves and it was Prof Smith who led a series of studies on the problem to work on practical solutions for developing countries.

Prof Kalpana Balakrishnan, Director of Indian Council of Medical Research’s Centre for Advanced Research on Air Quality, Climate and Health at Sri Ramchandra Institute for Higher Education and Research at Chennai told The Indian Express, “At SRIHER, Prof Smith created a formidable workforce of over 20 faculty members and hundreds of research students who were trained on various dimensions of household air pollution over two decades.”

Both Dr Smith and Dr Balakrishnan spearheaded research and training activities that had some of the most far-reaching impacts in the field of household air pollution. What started as a fledgling effort with Dr Smith training a handful of researchers on HAP measurements led to more than 10,000 measurements by SRIHER across multiple states and this entire exercise resulted in WHO and Global Burden of Disease using the India model for household air pollution to estimate the disease burden attributable to cooking fuels in 2010.

“He was not just a mentor but a selfless collaborator who cared about building capacities with relentless passion,” she added. “He taught us everything from assessing aerosol behaviour to deploying sophisticated sensors and assessing women’s preferences all in the same breath,” Dr Balakrishnan recalled.

In a message from Dr Ajay Mathur, Director General, The Energy and Resources Institute (TERI), said Prof Smith played a pivotal role in establishing the science of air pollution and specially indoor air pollution in developing countries. “He brought out the importance of ‘clean’ chulha into academic literature and public policy thinking,” Dr Mathur said.

Even as Dr Sundeep Savi, a member on the centre’s steering committee on preventing air pollution, recalled that it was Dr Smith’s efforts that helped shape the way the government started looking at impact of air pollution on health, at Vadu there is a sad silence as researchers and scientists mourned the death of Prof Smith. “We were about to embark on an ambitious study to assess the impact of air pollution on blood pressure levels and our guiding light is no more,” Dr Juvekar said.

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