News / Science & Technology

Tyler Environmental Prize: Pollution's Effects Far-Reaching

Mike O'Sullivan
Two California scientists have been honored for their research into air pollution, outdoor and indoor.  Mike O’Sullivan reports, this year’s winners of the $200,000 Tyler Prize for Environmental Achievement, John Seinfeld and Kirk Smith, have shown the far-reaching nature of the problem.
 
Nearly half of the world’s people use biomass fuels such as wood or dried dung to cook their food, and many cook indoors.  

Professor Kirk Smith of the University of California, Berkeley studies environmental impacts on human health, and wondered about the impact of smoke on the families.  In the early 1980s he was studying energy use in rural Asia.  

“And during that time, I noted the very smoky conditions in village households," said Smith. "I came back and I thought, well somebody must have looked at the health effects of this, and I could find nothing in the literature.  My students and I looked.  So we did some back-of-the-envelop calculations to figure roughly what kind of air pollution levels might exist, and we could not believe the results of our simple models.”

Later measurements confirmed the estimates: household cooking produces as much smoke as 1,000 cigarettes burning per hour.  His studies show that this leads to nearly two-million premature deaths a year, especially among women and children, and the emissions contribute to climate change.  

Air pollution in one part of the world affects the air in another, says the other recipient of this year's Tyler Prize, John Seinfeld of the California Institute of Technology.

“Emissions from Asia will make it across the Pacific, will be in the air over the United States, and even in some cases be tracked out over the Atlantic heading to Europe," said Seinfeld. "And so you can think of the northern hemisphere as a big backyard.”

He says the southern hemisphere has the same mixing, and there is long-term interaction between the hemispheres.

Seinfeld says natural and man-made substances interact.

“Every particle in the air anywhere on earth is a little kitchen sink of compounds that come from everywhere," he said. "So I got interested in understanding what this was, and it was very clear the atmosphere is just a big reactor.”

He says the interactions are complicated.  Human-produced greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide are warming the atmosphere.  Other man-made and natural substances can accelerate the process, or sometimes slow it. "  The compounds they produce can be harmful to human health.

The scientists say environmental research requires careful measurement.  In Guatemala, India, China, and other countries, Kirk Smith has overseen studies to measure household emissions and assess the long-term effects on those exposed to smoke from cooking.  

Research teams are also assessing the effectiveness of low-pollution stoves, and Smith foresees widespread use of that technology when the results are in.  He notes that many devices being distributed by non-profit organizations have not been fully tested.

“The motto of my research group is, you do not get what you expect, you get what you inspect," he said. "So it looks good, but we have to inspect before we can know what to expect.”

He sees the financial burden being shared, as it is now in parts of China, where one third of the cost of a stove is paid by the family that uses it, one third by provincial authorities and one third with credits from the international carbon market.

He says stoves that are proven to be effective at reducing emissions will benefit families and communities and help to clear the air around the world.

You May Like

Bleak China Economic Outlook Rattles Markets

Several key European stock indexes were down nearly three percent, while US market indexes were off around two percent in early trading More

DRC Tries Mega-Farms to Feed Population

Park at Boukanga Lonzo currently has 5,000 hectares under cultivation, crops stretching as far as eye can see, and is start of ambitious large-scale agriculture plan More

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Areas are spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, source of livelihood for fishermen and herders who have called the marshes home for generations More

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOAi
X
August 31, 2015 2:17 AM
Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video Nobel Prize Winner Malala Talks to VOA

Nobel Peace Prize winner Malala Yousafzai met with VOA's Deewa service in Washington Sunday to talk about women’s rights and unveil a trailer for her new documentary. VOA's Katherine Gypson has more.
Video

Video War, Drought Threaten Iraq's Marshlands

Iraq's southern wetlands are in crisis. These areas are the spawning ground for Gulf fisheries, a resting place for migrating wildfowl, and source of livelihood for fishermen and herders. Faith Lapidus has more.
Video

Video Colombians Flee Venezuela as Border Crisis Escalates

Hundreds of Colombians have fled Venezuela since last week, amid an escalating border crisis between the two countries. Last week, Venezuelan President Nicolas Maduro ordered the closure of a key border crossing after smugglers injured three Venezuelan soldiers and a civilian. The president also ordered the deportation of Colombians who are in Venezuela illegally. Zlatica Hoke reports.
Video

Video Rebuilding New Orleans' Music Scene

Ten years after Hurricane Katrina inundated New Orleans, threatening to wash away its vibrant musical heritage along with its neighborhoods, the beat goes on. As Bronwyn Benito and Faith Lapidus report, a Musicians' Village is preserving the city's unique sound.
Video

Video In Russia, Auto Industry in Tailspin

Industry insiders say country relies too heavily on imports as inflation cuts too many consumers out of the market. Daniel Schearf has more from Moscow.
Video

Video Scientist Calls Use of Fetal Tissue in Medical Research Essential

An anti-abortion group responsible for secret recordings of workers at a women's health care organization claims the workers shown are offering baby parts for sale, a charge the organization strongly denies. While the selling of fetal tissue is against the law in the United States, abortion and the use of donated fetal tissue for medical research are both legal. VOA’s Julie Taboh reports.
Video

Video Next to Iran, Climate at Forefront of Obama Agenda

President Barack Obama this week announced new initiatives aimed at making it easier for Americans to access renewable energy sources such as solar and wind. Obama is not slowing down when it comes to pushing through climate change measures, an issue he says is the greatest threat to the country’s national security. VOA correspondent Aru Pande has more from the White House.
Video

Video Arctic Draws International Competition for Oil

A new geopolitical “Great Game” is underway in earth’s northernmost region, the Arctic, where Russia has claimed a large area for resource development and President Barack Obama recently approved Shell Oil Company’s test-drilling project in an area under U.S. control. Greg Flakus reports.
Video

Video Philippine Maritime Police: Chinese Fishermen a Threat to Country’s Security

China and the Philippines both claim maritime rights in the South China Sea.  That includes the right to fish in those waters. Jason Strother reports on how the Philippines is catching Chinese nationals it says are illegal poachers. He has the story from Palawan province.
Video

Video China's Spratly Island Building Said to Light Up the Night 'Like A City'

Southeast Asian countries claim China has illegally seized territory in the Spratly islands. It is especially a concern for a Philippine mayor who says Beijing is occupying parts of his municipality. Jason Strother reports from the capital of Palawan province, Puerto Princesa.
Video

Video Ages-old Ice Reveals Secrets of Climate Change

Ice caps don't just exist at the world's poles. There are also tropical ice caps, and the largest sits atop the Peruvian Andes - but it is melting, quickly, and may be gone within the next 20 years. George Putic reports scientists are now rushing to take samples to get at the valuable information about climate change locked in the ice.

VOA Blogs