Kirk Smith, whose groundbreaking work has documented the dangers of household air pollution, has been named one of two winners of the 2012 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement. The Tyler Prize is given to those who “confer great benefit upon humankind through environmental restoration and achievement,” and is regarded as the premiere award for environmental science, environmental health, and energy.
A professor of global environmental health at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health, Smith was 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. He was the first to demonstrate that acute exposure to smoke from the burning of biomass fuels like wood or dung in homes represents one of the world’s greatest health threats. He has documented a heightened risk of pneumonia, cataracts, tuberculosis, heart disease, and chronic lung disease.
“We now understand the deadly effects of these fuels that are used by nearly half the world,” said Smith. “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.”
In addition to recognizing the impact of this cooking and heating practice on health, Smith’s work has also led to the recognition of the role it plays in climate change. He realized the potential major co-benefits for both health and climate from improvements in household energy technologies in poor countries. This has led to increased support to get improved stoves out to developing countries.
Throughout his career, Smith has advised major international organizations, such as the World Health Organization, and his research, including the first measurements of the global warming impacts of stoves, is routinely cited by other scientists. His research on the health and climate effects from indoor cooking with solid fuels contributed to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change reports that helped earn the organization a 2007 Nobel Peace Prize, shared with former Vice President Al Gore. In 2009 he received the Heinz Award for Environmental Achievement. He is also a member of the National Academy of Sciences.
The Tyler Prize, established in 1973 and administered by USC, is named for the prize’s founders, John and Alice Tyler. Previous winners include Edward O. Wilson, a biologist and naturalist, and Jane Goodall, a conservationist and one of the world’s leading experts on chimpanzees.
Smith and John Seinfeld, a professor of chemical engineering at the California Institute of Technology, will each receive a $100,000 prize and will be given gold medallions at an award ceremony in Los Angeles on April 27. On April 26, they will deliver public lectures at the Davidson Conference Center at USC.
“Professors Smith and Seinfeld are giants in the efforts to understand and reduce the devastating impacts of air pollution,” Owen T. Lind, a biology professor at Baylor University and the chairman of the award’s executive committee, said in a statement. Lind said the pair’s research has “dramatically advanced our understanding of the ways in which air pollution threatens our health as individuals and the health of the planet.”
By Linda Anderberg