Professor Kirk R. Smith, close friend, mentor, and pioneering environmental health scientist, passed away unexpectedly on Monday, June 15th, 2020 at home with his family. This news has been hard to process; a remembrance of Kirk follows.
I don't know where to begin, how to start. So I'll start at our beginning.
I emailed Dr. Smith, as I insisted on calling Dr. Smith then, out of the blue in July 2006. I was applying for a Fulbright in Nepal and proposed an air pollution assessment in a few rural villages. I needed help identifying a local field partner and knew Dr. Smith had worked in Nepal on similar issues. I had no sense of the scale of his work, knew only a little of his renown, and had enough youthful hubris to reach out blindly. Still, I honestly expected no response.
To adapt (or bastardize, you pick) a mantra of Dr. Smith's 1, and the motto of his research group: You don't get what you expect; sometimes, you get the unexpected. Dr. Smith wrote back a few hours after my random inquiry -- succinct and helpful, my first exposure to the notorious slash-k 2. He introduced me to Amod Pokhrel -- at the time, a student in EHS -- who helped me find a field partner and who has been a friend and colleague since. My first experience of one of Dr. Smith's many gifts: his generosity of time and thought. One short act - three lines in total, 2 of which were email addresses - opened a door for me and lay the groundwork for lifelong friendships and collaborations.
About a year later, Dr. Smith and I met in person in Nepal, over lukewarm chai, while I was on my Fulbright. As is often the case, this meeting was (1) after he had given a lecture and (2) before he had to dash off to another meeting. I remember being struck then, as ever, by his warmth, his willingness to interact despite being very busy, his quirky sense of humor, and his intellectual rigor. He encouraged me to consider a PhD at Berkeley. We had about a half hour talk and then went to find cabs: it was pouring, otherwise I am confident he would have walked or taken the bus or a tuk-tuk.
We were infrequently in touch for the next year. I applied to the EHS PhD program at Berkeley in late 2009, got in, and moved into an apartment in Oakland in July of 2010. At some point in that first few months, I called Dr. Smith's home, up Panoramic Way, and Joan answered. Joan scared me just as much as Dr. Smith in those days. I asked for Dr. Smith, and she gave him the phone, saying something along the lines of, "Will you please tell him to stop with this Dr. Smith nonsense?" It was just loud enough that I could hear it, and it worked: 'Dr. Smith' (eventually) gave way to 'Kirk'. An example, one of many, highlighting Joan's wit, grace, warmth, and intellect.
Between then and now, there are a lot of stories -- some are mine, but so many more are Kirk's. We know he was never shy with a story. I never tired of them (okay, yeah: sometimes I tired of them).
I had the privilege of working directly with Kirk - first as a doctoral student, then as a postdoc - for the last decade, on small and large projects of all types, all over the globe. He was the greatest advocate for his students I have ever seen, and our working relationship was the best I have had. I learned much watching Kirk move through the world, with his grace, wit, inquisitiveness, and, when needed, prickly sharpness. Our friendship grew into something deep and constant. I'd like to think I gave to Kirk a thousandth of what he gave to me, but that is unlikely.
My last in-person visit with Kirk was in mid-February, about six weeks after we moved from Oakland to Atlanta, and ten years since we made the opposite journey, from Atlanta to Oakland. Mid-February, just before the pandemic obliterated routine and instated an era of uncertainty. Just six weeks after I had started a new job.
Kirk asked me to return to Berkeley to lecture in two of his classes: one an air pollution and health course that he and I launched with John Balmes, and the other his Environmental Health breadth course, which he was in the process of reimagining. Always reimagining, always improving.
We met a few times during that short visit, between other obligations. Kirk offered advice about new jobs, which he said he borrowed from Joanie, and his own supportive words; we discussed ongoing and potential work together; we ended the day with a nice Korean meal. It was a cool, drizzly Berkeley evening. I remember walking after that meal, full of bibimbap and nostalgia, heavy with memories (and with rice). The next morning's lecture, in the air pollution and health class, was small, intimate, fun; Kirk shuffled out early to go up to Bear Valley with his family. When class wrapped, I dropped some things off at Maria's desk, wandering by Kirk's office, wondering when I would see it again.
I never expected that visit to be the last time we would meet in person or see each other; nor did I expect our lives to be turned upside down by a new, emergent public health threat enabled, in some ways, by the same time- and space-folding habits that enabled Kirk and I (and so many others) to do our work. I never expected to form a deep bond with such an important, transformative thinker, and certainly never expected to count him among my closest confidants, mentors, and dearest friends. I didn't expect to hear the words "Kirk" and "stroke" and "cardiac arrest" strung together a few months later.
I expected our plans for new studies - that we discussed, just days ago - to bear fruit through our collective efforts. I expected that we would carry on for at least another decade of work, of stories, of excitement, of quibbles, of jetlag and food poisoning, of kids and grandkids, of small and large adventure, of gentle silence and enthusiastic proclamation, of our Kirk.
Sometimes, you don't get what you expect, or what you inspect. Sometimes, you get the unexpected.
From the Economic Times of India
"The relief package of Rs 1.7 lakh crore will help the nation deal with disruptions from the Covid-19 outbreak," he said in a statement. "Comprehensive measures announced today, will mitigate the economic impact of the Covid-19 outbreak on the rural and urban poor, farmers, health workers, migrant workers, divyangs, senior citizens and other vulnerable sections of the society."
More detail from Times of India
The guideline issued for the scheme on Tuesday said the Centre will transfer the full cost of a cylinder as advance by the fourth of the month till June. This will allow the households to book the refills under the free-cylinder scheme.
The guidelines also allow the connection holder to retain the advance payment and use it till March 2021 for buying a cylinder in case a household does not take all the three cylinders under the special scheme. But, households can get only one cylinder a month and there has to be a minimum 15-day gap between two bookings for refills. These measures are aimed at checking misuse of the scheme or diversion of subsidised cylinders meant for the poor.
A fascinating interrogation of the air pollution crisis in India in EPW by Asher Ghertner. The full article is behind a paywall, unfortunately; Rutgers has a good summary:
Drawing on the "fact" of small Indian lungs, key Indian government ministries have argued something quite different, suggesting that Indian lungs are not uniquely vulnerable to air pollution but rather uniquely "adapted" to tropical air/dust. Small lungs, in other words, are somehow less affected by pollution - they claim. These ministries have used the anatomical difference in Indian lung size to challenge the applicability of World Health Organization and Global Burden of Disease (GBD) integrated exposure-response (IER) functions for air pollution--which define the expected increase in death and illness caused by levels of pollution exposure within a population. Ghertner uses these ministries' arguments and testimonies from judicial records to show how the same argument used in the colonial era to submit Indian workers to unshielded "miasmas" now subjects all citizens to a process of slow death by breath. This also normalizes what he calls a "sequestration" model of atmospheric conduct that maintains that the solution to pollution is enclosure - escape into private cars and townships or self-defense through air pollution masks and personal purification systems - not pollution abatement.
Professor John Balmes, close colleague and friend, and physician member of the California Air Resources Board:
PM 2.5 kills people. There has been little dispute that microscopic particulate matter in air pollution penetrates into the deepest parts of the lungs and contributes to the early deaths each year of thousands of people in the United States with heart and lung disease.
One recent study called PM 2.5 “the largest environmental risk factor worldwide,” responsible for many more deaths than alcohol use, physical inactivity or high sodium intake.
The Environmental Protection Agency’s own website says: “Numerous scientific studies have linked particle pollution exposure to a variety of problems, including: premature death in people with heart or lung disease, nonfatal heart attacks, irregular heartbeat, aggravated asthma, decreased lung function, increased respiratory symptoms.”
Which makes it deeply troubling that the very people at the helm of the Trump administration’s E.P.A. responsible for protecting public health and the environment are now pursuing a course that would make the air we breathe even more hazardous.
Playground, India Institute of Technology Campus, Delhi, India - PM2.5 500 - 600 µg/m3
Artist Robin Price and Professor Francis Pope use experimental photography to “see” small particles as part of their “Air of the Anthropocene” project (h/t Zoe Chafe). The photos are stunning. From a Guardian piece highlighting many of the photos:
Using a custom-built digital light painter and wearable particulate sensor, I take long exposure photographs that paint the amount of PM2.5 particles in the air as particles of light. As the light painter’s sensor detects more pollution it draws correspondingly greater numbers of light particles into the photograph. The effect is as if the microscopic pollution has been enlarged and lit up, shedding light on the invisible particles.
Meanwhile, in the Bay Area, Artist Rosten Woo uses chimes to make air pollution audible:
Mutual Air is a network of roughly thirty specially designed bells that generate a soundscape reflecting and responding to the changing composition of our local and global atmosphere. By sonifying air-quality fluctuations, Woo hopes to engage the public in an experiential understanding of climate science and how aspects of our atmosphere, while a shared resource, reflect socioeconomic disparities.
His work was featured on PBS News Hour:
See also Smog Meringues and British Pathe - Air Pollution
A new report titled “Political Leaders Position and Action on Air Quality in India” released by Climate Trends also highlighted that members of parliament in 14 Indian cities, among the most polluted cities globally as per the WHO 2018 urban air quality database, have done little to get their cities to comply with safe air quality standards locally.
“The manifestos of both the national parties have proven that political parties cannot ignore and neglect air pollution related health emergency any more. This rhetoric is a good sign. But the bigger question is - if this electoral promise will translate into strong enough political will to push for hard action with accountability and show results,” said Anumita Roychowdhury, executive director, Centre for Science and Environment. Delhi’s air pollution levels recorded a fall in 2018 because of multiple strategies, she added.
The BJP’s Manifesto was released in the last few days. A little hard to hunt down, initially, though a PDF is hosted at documentcloud.
In a section that is partly a list of achievements and partly a description of next steps:
We have evolved technologically better strategies and devices to map the level of pollution in cities and rivers and have taken effective steps to reduce the level of pollution in major cities, including the national capital. We will convert the National Clean Air Plan into a Mission and we will focus on 102 most polluted cities in the country. Through concerted action, we will reduce the level of pollution in each of the mission cities by at least 35% over the next five years.
Another part of he Manifesto is framed around 75 milestones for India’s 75th anniversary, including some focusing on health, energy, air pollution, and water & sanitation.
Ensure a pucca house to every family.
Ensure the LPG gas cylinder connection to all poor rural households.
Ensure 100% electrification of all households.
Ensure a toilet in every household.
Ensure access to safe and potable drinking water for all households.
Bharat Mission to achieve ODF+ (Open Defecation Free) and ODF++ in cities and villages.
Ensure ODF status for all villages and cities.
Under good governance:
Work towards substantially reducing the current levels of air pollution.
Work towards completely eliminating crop residue burning to reduce air pollution.
McClatchy reporting today:
The Trump campaign is seeking a list of “climate change victories” that can be attributed to Donald Trump’s presidency, reflecting a shift in strategy ahead of the 2020 election as polls show growing voter concern over global warming, two sources familiar with the campaign told McClatchy this week.
To hell with that. National Geographic has provided an excellent rebuttal with “A running list of how President Trump is changing environmental policy”. They peg it at a 70 minute read.
TRUMP SIGNS ORDER GREENLIGHTING KEYSTONE XL PIPELINE
EXECUTIVE ORDER CALLS FOR SHARP LOGGING INCREASE ON PUBLIC LANDS
EPA CRIMINAL ENFORCEMENTS HIT 30-YEAR LOW
TRUMP ADMINISTRATION ROLLS BACK OBAMA-ERA COAL RULES
FIRST OFFSHORE OIL WELLS APPROVED FOR THE ARCTIC
Bernard D. Goldstein, former chairman of the Clean Air Scientific Advisory Committee and EPA assistant administrator for R&D under Reagan:
I had hoped that Wheeler would reverse Pruitt’s initial policies. Instead, he has taken them well beyond the point that, were I a member of CASAC, I would have resigned. Neither my conscience, nor my concern for the respect of my peers, would have allowed me to provide advice on a complex health-related subject when I cannot interact in a scientific consensus advisory process with those who have the necessary expert credentials.
I cannot ask President Trump’s EPA assistant administrator for research and development to resign. That position remains unfilled. Nor is it likely that any credible scientist would accept such a nomination. But I urge the current members of CASAC to step down rather than seemingly acquiesce to this charade. The EPA’s leadership is destroying the scientific foundation of environmental regulations, to the detriment of the health of the American people and our environment.
Read the whole thing.
Nice piece by Nicola Twilley, co-host of Gastropod:
“So there is a big question here,” Marina Vance pointed out. “If all these studies have found an association between outdoor air pollution and a decrease in life quality and life expectancy, but we’re not outside, how does that relationship still hold?”
One possibility is that the brief moments we spend outdoors have an outsized impact on our health. Another consideration is that outdoor pollutants can and do come inside. But one homechem researcher, Allen Goldstein, recently co-authored a paper that suggests a fascinating inversion. The dominant source of VOCs in Los Angeles is now emissions from consumer products, including toiletries and cleaning fluids. In other words, vehicle emissions have been controlled to such an extent that, even in the most car-clogged city in America, indoor air that has leaked outdoors may create more smog than transportation does.
It’s true — some surveys done in the last couple of decades show that people in North America spend, on average, 90% of their time indoors. It’s unlikely that our air pollution exposures — measured as ambient concentrations at central sites, far from where we live and spend time — capture what’s really going on.
One point of contention with this article — despite some nice historical thinking on the relationships between indoor and outdoor air, there was no mention of the very large exposures that continue in the developing world, where solid fuels like wood, grass, dung, and coal are used indoors. A substantial oversight.
Update: Nicola Twilley wrote on twitter that mention of the developing world didn’t make the final version.
NPR, reporting on a recent EPA Meeting:
At a public meeting Thursday that ran nearly two hours long, multiple members of that committee, including Chair Tony Cox and Steven Packham of the Utah Division of Air Quality, said they do not agree that breathing air polluted with soot can lead to an early death.
“[Committee] members have varying opinions on the adequacy of the evidence supporting the EPA’s conclusion that there is a causal relationship between [particulate matter] exposure and mortality,” said Cox, reading from the committee’s draft recommendations before explaining that he is “actually appalled” at the lack of scientific evidence connecting particulate pollution to premature death.
A quarter of a century of research has shown that breathing in fine airborne particles emitted by cars, power plants and other sources shortens people’s lifespans. But that scientific consensus is now under attack from a top advisor to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), just as the agency is rushing to revise the national air-quality standard for such pollution before the end of President Donald Trump’s first term. Scientists fear that the result could be weaker rules on air pollution that are bad for public health — and based on politics, not science.
The case has been made — repeatedly — that the health and economic benefits of the Clean Air Act and subsequent regulatory processes are clear. This is summarized succinctly in the figure below, which shows energy consumption, vehicle miles traveled, GDP, and total emissions of EPA criteria pollutants.
Figure from The Lancet Commission on Pollution and Health
Let’s put aside the economic argument and focus on the principles that undergird the Clean Air Act - protection of public health, with standards set to protect the most vulnerable. This critical prerogative is undermined by these (and other) recent efforts to roll back regulations that have clear and demonstrable health benefits. This is yet another example of the Trump administration’s abnegation of responsibility to the health and welfare of the US population.
For more information, see Gretchen T. Goldman and Francesca Dominici’s discussion in Science and their claim-by-claim evidence base. See also a nice summary of the issue at NRDC and a letter from Professor John Samet to the EPA that comprehensively outlines issues with changes to the evidence review process for the National Ambient Air Quality Standards.